Robert Henri and the 1915 San Diego Exposition

By Jean Stern


In 1915, the United States opened the Panama Canal. To celebrate this historic event, two expositions were held in California, the lavish Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and the modest Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. In retrospect, the San Francisco event completely overshadowed the San Diego one, and indeed few people are aware that the San Diego exposition ever existed.

Although the Panama-California Exposition was originally designed and planned to be a regional event, intended to feature the history and heritage of the Southwest, the planners of the show decided to include a display of current American painting. The task of directing the painting exhibit fell to Robert Henri, and his role in this little-known exhibit has been almost completely ignored by his biographers. The fact that Henri organized and participated in this particular exhibit makes the Panama-California Exposition of noteworthy importance, and his role in this task reveals important insight in the character of the artist.

Early in the summer of 1914, work was well under way in San Diego for the opening of the exposition. San Diego had realized what the new canal would do to its economy, and preparations had begun many years prior for a gala celebration. The natural harbor of San Diego, discovered by the Spanish explorer Cabrillo in 1542, had long been the mainstay of the local economy, and the opening of the Panama Canal promised a great potential in additional ship traffic. San Diego wanted to advertise its presence to the nation and the world with an impressive exposition. Balboa Park was selected as the site, a 1400-acre tract just north of downtown San Diego. It was a barren area, criss-crossed by canyons and devoid of any trees. The land had been set aside in 1871 for eventual use as a city park, but it was not until the planning stages of the Panama-California Exposition that any steps were taken to develop it. In 1912, the grounds were surveyed and landscaping was begun. The natural sagebrush and chaparral vegetation was enhanced by the planting of several thousand trees, including the large number of eucalyptus trees that now dominate the area. The task of designing the exposition's buildings fell to Bertram Goodhue who selected Spanish Colonial as the architectural theme. Permanent and temporary buildings were erected and a huge bridge was built to span a deep canyon at the entrance to the park. The bridge and some of the buildings are still in use today in Balboa Park.

The work of planning the many aspects of the show was divided between several committees, including the Fine Arts Committee, which organized the art exhibits. Dr. E. L. Hewett, an archaeologist who had conducted early excavations at the Maya site of Quirigua, was in over-all charge of the Ethnology and Art exhibits at the fair. Under Dr. Hewett's direction, a large part of the exhibits was devoted to the lifestyle of the American Indian, past and present. There were two re-created Indian villages, inhabited by Indians from several Southwest tribes, and several exhibits of Indian crafts. The Ancient American Art exhibit included many reproductions of ancient monuments including full-size casts of Maya steles.

To contrast with these native and ancient American art traditions, there was to be a Modern American Art exhibit representing famous artists. In this aim, Dr. Hewett authorized Alice Klauber, a member of the Fine Arts Committee, to ask Robert Henri for assistance in setting up the exhibit. Alice Klauber was a close friend of Robert Henri and had been an art pupil of his in New York. In the summer of 1914, Henri was living in La Jolla, California, a suburb of San Diego, at the invitation of Alice Klauber, and it was there that Klauber introduced him to Dr. Hewett. Soon, he and Hewett became close friends. Hewett lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was the Director of the School of American Archaeology. Henri was to be attracted to the culture of the Southwest Indians, and particularly life in Santa Fe.

Henri took a great interest in the Panama-California Exposition and proceeded with the planning of the art exhibit. He sent to Hewett a list of artists who would "...represent American Art ..."[1] The list was as follows: George Bellows, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, Carl Sprinchorn, George Luks, Childe Hassam, Guy Pene Du Bois, and Henri. What Henri considered to be representative of modern American art was essentially the Eight, plus four disciples. [2]

Although Davies is included in the list, it is doubtful that Henri expected him to accept the invitation. The history of Henri's and Davies' inimical relationship goes back several years. Robert Henri, the eminent teacher and promoter of an American art style, was the prime mover in the 1908 exhibition of the Eight. The Eight was a group of eight artists who had never before exhibited as a unit. They were not a formal association but had been drawn together by the initiative of William Macbeth at his gallery in New York to protest the exhibition policies of the National Academy. In 1907, the Academy jury had refused to accept the works of Glackens, Sloan, and Luks, all three of whom were pupils of Henri's. This prompted Henri to withdraw his works, which had already been accepted. Together with Davies, a regular exhibitor at Macbeth's, Shinn, another pupil of Henri's, and Lawson and Prendergast, the Eight was thus formed. The exhibit was a tremendous success. The sensation caused by the Eight's exhibition brought Robert Henri forward as the leading figure in contemporary American art.

In 1911 all of the Eight became members of the newly formed Association of American Painters and Sculptors with the exception of Shinn, who, although invited to join, declined because he was too busy painting a mural at the time. In addition to the Eight, the A.A.P.S. enlisted younger artists, who had participated with Henri in the MacDowell Club exhibitions, and who had sent paintings to the Independent Artists Exhibition of 1910, which had been organized by Henri. When it came time to elect the first permanent president of the association, the decision was between Henri and Davies. Fearing that Henri was too closely associated with past issues, and desiring a nonpartisan figure for the newly formed group, the A.A.P.S. elected Davies, although not without some behind-the-scenes activity. [3] One of the provisions of the A.A.P.S. charter was to hold annual exhibitions by its members. The first and only exhibit was the Armory Show of 1913.

Davies, who up to 1913 had been thought of as a quiet, conservative individual by his fellow artists, became a virtual dictator and almost single-handedly planned and supervised the outcome of the Armory Show. While it appears that the members of the A.A.P.S. had envisioned the show as one of a continuing series of exhibitions which would stir the country to a recognition of its artistic resources, Davies thought otherwise. Recognizing the progressive quality of European modern art, he sought to "shake American complacency by demonstrating its retardation and insularity."[4] In the planning stages of the show, Davies effectively neutralized Henri's power in the A.A.P.S. by excluding him from the Committee on Domestic Exhibits and instead placing him on the Committee on Foreign Exhibits. Henri in turn refused to help in selecting the European works while abroad unless given sole authority, which he was not, whereupon he declined to serve on the A.A.P.S. Board of Directors. Thus, early in the preparatory stage of the Armory Show, Robert Henri had lost all of his official capacity in the A.A.P.S.

The Armory Show had a monumental effect on American art, creating irreversible change and adding a European flavor. This change split American artists into two camps: the old Ash Can group represented by Henri and his pupils, and the new European oriented artists like the Stieglitz Group, among whom were John Marin, Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, and Alfred Maurer. This European intrusion into American art was deeply resented by Henri and his circle. They felt that the A.A.P.S. had been used to subvert the development of American art. Their resentment is voiced in Jerome Meyer's reaction that, "Davies had unlocked the door to foreign art and thrown the key away. . . more than ever before, our great country had become an art colony j more than ever before we had become provincials... ."[5] More than anyone else, however, Henri was badly shaken by the Armory Show. Nearly overnight, he had lost his role as the directive force in American art. What five years earlier had been modern American art as represented by the Eight had now become outmoded and provincial.

Yet, Henri did include Davies in the original invitation to San Diego. This may have been a calculated attempt to project some measure of impartiality, or it may have been Henri's way of giving Davies a chance to make up with him. Undoubtedly, Henri still considered himself a directive force in American art, and his role in the Eight, in which Davies had participated, may have prompted him to extend the invitation to Davies with the remote hope that the Eight would be re-united in San Diego.

If, indeed, Henri was extending his hand out to Davies, this gesture was as far as he would unilaterally go. In a letter from Henri to Hewett, dated Oct. 18, 1914, Henri informed Hewett that a negative reply was to be expected from Davies. As it happened, Hewett had already received a telegram from Davies two days earlier, dated Oct. 16, 1914, bearing the provocative reply, "Regret I cannot go in the Robert Henri pool with you - A. B. DAVIS. (sic)"[6] It is clear from the wording of Davies' telegram that Henri's presence in the exhibit was the main objection to his participation. Informed of this telegram, and of Hewett's intention to try again, Henri wrote on Oct. 25, ". . . as to Davies, I'm glad you are going to try him again. . .," suggesting that Hewett make arrangements through the Macbeth Galleries. Later in the same letter Henri adds, "I have not seen him personally (Davies) and I will not unless he should come to me. I shall be sorry if he is not represented. But anyway he is not essential to the success of the exhibition."[7] Henri also had fears that Davies would influence Prendergast to stay away from the show,[8] but his fears were not justified as Prendergast sent two paintings to San Diego.

The search for Davies' replacement ended with an invitation being sent to Joseph Henry Sharp, the celebrated painter of Indian subjects. Sharp, who at the time was living with the Indians at Crow Agency, Montana, was very eager to accept. He was asked to exhibit six of his works, and he was so delighted at the prospect of having them shown with other Indian subjects (which Henri was submitting) that he re-routed several works intended for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and instead sent them to San Diego. [9]


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