Robert Henri: The Early Years



The following essay was written in 1998 by Bennard Perlman and included in the catalogue for the Robert Henri exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from October 20 through December 16, 1998.


Robert Henri's career as an art professional can be traced to his third trip to Europe during 1895-1896, and his meeting the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice. Admittedly, Henri had produced a few notable works prior to that time, but his nearly five years of art classes in Philadelphia and Paris had resulted in a long line of exercises involving copies of Greek and Roman statues, anatomical and figure studies, and compositions of historical and biblical subjects.

It was Morrice who introduced Henri to the practice of painting pochades on tiny wood panels that could be carried in one's coat pocket along with a handful of brushes and a few tubes of oil. While the French word "pochade" literally means "hasty sketch", and pochades were often preliminary to larger, more detailed paintings, both artists looked upon some of them as complete works of art.

Now Henri began concentrating on depictions of the city, working spontaneously on panels measuring little more than 4-by-6 inches. Pont Neuf and Houses, 1895 is just such a work, a composition of the bridge which Henri so often traversed in walking from his studio on the Rue Mazarine across the Seine and the Ile de la Citè to the Louvre. This slice of Paris is boldly created with a heavily-loaded brush.

On the other hand, Houses on the Quai Bouloigne [sic; Boulogne], 1896, presents an overall subtlety of tone rather than the strong chiaroscuro of Pont Neuf. The Quai typifies the so-called Whistler "soup" method of painting, in which the entire surface of the wood panel is covered with a single grayish-umber pigment, then the subject is worked into it.

While the Gare Montparnasse, 1895, is also painted on a wood panel, its size, 11 by 13 inches, removes it from the realm of a pochade. Here Henri employed a more impasto application of pigment in the foreground, where freely-sketched figures and horse-drawn buses appear in motion, the people scurrying as they arrive or depart from the depot. Background buildings, however, were painted in thin oil washes, so thin that the wood grain of the panel shows through. This appears to push them further away. (Edgar Degas employed this same variety of technique in several of his horse racing subjects painted on wood during the previous decade.)

One of Henri's most spontaneously-produced compositions at this time was Joinville, painted in 1896, a view of a town located on the river Marne just beyond the southeast city limits of Paris. Peering beyond two near-by tree trunks which practically divide the picture into thirds, one sees a cluster of figures standing and seated at a quay-side café. Accuracy of detail has been abandoned in favor of one human form blending into another and chairs being merely implied. The background river, though, is presented as a calm foil to the foreground, its subtle ripples and reflections a suitable backdrop for the animated people at the boat landing. The bright red hue of a large hat worn by one of the women is repeated in glasses of wine on a white tablecloth, a distant rowboat, and an umbrella held aloft by one of its occupants, a device which directs the eye of the viewer to various areas of the composition. (Camille Corot had also been fond of placing spots of red in this manner.)

Henri returned to Philadelphia the year after Joinville was painted and in 1898 married Linda Craige, a student in a private art class he was teaching. The Henris spent the next two years on an extended honeymoon in France, during which time they visited Concarneau in Brittany, a popular destination for American artists. Among the ten landscapes Henri painted there was one titled The Beach -- Concarneau 1899. Like several of Henri's smaller canvases from 1892 of dunes and the shoreline in Atlantic City, this work is a portrait of nature, devoid of all man-made structures. Only a solitary individual, clad in red, has been placed toward the bottom of the composition in order to provide the proverbial spot of attention-getting color and a sense of scale among the darkened rocks, gleaming beach and green landscape. Since the components appear as several long horizontals, Henri created a visual, vertical pull between the patch of blue sky and white cloud bank, and the bright yellow sand.

Returning to Paris after six weeks in Concarneau, Henri learned that the French Government would purchase his Salon painting, La Neige (The Snow), 1899, for its Luxembourg Museum. La Neige is a cityscape, a view of a Paris street in deep one-point perspective, its overall gray tonality in marked contrast to snow-covered rooftops and slush on the street.

Building on that success, Henri now produced a seasonal companion to his honored canvas in 1899: Paris Street, Summer Evening; Dust, Haze. Measuring 26-by-32 inches, identical in size to La Neige, it replaces the gloom of winter with warm browns; the overcast sky has been supplanted by one where a warm cerulean blue peeks through the yellow haze. Additionally, in Paris Street several of the coaches, their running lights aglow, are situated nearer the picture plane, bringing the street activity closer to the viewer.

When Henri and his wife returned to the United States in August, 1900, he sought to settle near New York City, searching out New Rochelle, Glen Island and Brooklyn before choosing a house on Manhattan's East Side, at 512 East Fifty-eighth Street. Enamored by views of the East River visible from opposite ends of the building, he began painting the ever-changing patterns of water traffic and sky. One such canvas, painted in 1901, looking toward the south and titled simply East River, is a panorama of sail, steam and tugboat activity, with the Williamsburg Bridge far in the distance. Limiting his palette to black, white, blue, and green, he placed emphasis on the sweeping diagonal brushstrokes that dominate the sky, and the cluster of dark lines below which suggest a swiftly-moving current.

In Central Park, painted the same year, Henri created a strong pattern of chiaroscuro. By focusing on the billowy clouds and patches of sunlit grass he has created five horizontals of alternating light and dark, culminating in the single, masterful brushstroke at the bottom of the canvas.

During the month of June, 1902, the Henris stayed at the summer home of Linda's parents in Black Walnut, Pennsylvania, in the north-eastern corner of the state. While there, Robert produced a number of oils of the lush Wyoming Valley; most were pochades, convenient for carrying while traipsing over the rolling hills. Some of them so boldly produced and freely brushed that one might be led to believe that the heavily-textured strokes are still wet to the touch.

Also in 1902, Henri began teaching at the New York School of Art, inspiring a generation of art students, including Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent. His summer activities, too, were often associated with art classes as he instructed his charges first on Long Island (1904 and 1905), and then in Madrid (1906) and Holland (1907).

Although many of his Dutch paintings were portraits of children, one of his cityscapes, titled Amsterdam, Canal Scene, of 1907, features several barges moored in a canal, the far shoreline represented by a graceful, sweeping curve. Henri was moved by the works of Rembrandt and Frans Hals which he viewed that summer, and the rich darks present in this scene could well have been an immediate influence from those masters.

Six months after this work was created, Henri became the center of attention as the leader of The Eight, a group of artists which exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery in February, 1908. That event marked the beginning of another phase of Robert Henri's art.


Biographical information on the author:

Bennard Perlman is the retired Professor and Chair of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the Baltimore City Community College, and has been a visiting instructor at Goucher College, Towson University, and Loyola College, as well as a visiting lecturer at Oxford University in England. He has also lectured extensively on American art at such institutions as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, Phoenix Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

Professor Perlman wrote the first book about Robert Henri and The Eight, The Immortal Eight: American Painting from Eakins to the Armory Show (1962). Among his other books are Robert Henri: His Life and Art (1991); Revolutionaries of Realism: The Letters of John Sloan and Robert Henri (editor 1997); and The Lives, Loves and Art of Arthur B. Davies (1998). He also selected one hundred Henri paintings and wrote the catalog for the Robert Henri: Painter exhibition which traveled to five museums during 1984 and 1985.


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Mr. Perlman's essay is courtesy of the Owen Gallery, 19 East 75th Street, New York, New York and the author.

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