The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. Reviewed by Peter Tieryas Liu
Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit compares itself to an art gallery. “No effort has been made toward the form of a regular book… The opinions are presented more as paintings are hung on the wall, to be looked at at will and taken as rough sketches for what they are worth.” If every gallery were like this, museums would be reborn as places not only to view antique paintings from hundreds of years ago or some quaint movement impossible to appreciate without decades of study, but a genuine source of inspiration. And while inspiration can have many permutations, Robert Henri, the renown artist and teacher, inspires with simple words and an artistic integrity that blazes through with the realism and authenticity that marked his own work. Henri collected the notes from his art classes and compiled them into The Art Spirit in 1923. Much of the book comprises of letters to students and observations he’d made while examining the works of others, reminding them that, “Art when really understood is the province of every human being,” and, “For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself.”
Henri’s exploration of art could easily apply to science, music, and writing. There’s a confidence in his tone that exudes a sense of expectation and hope. Far from the wretched artist raging against a cruel world, here is a man who sees what is horrible and ugly about his society, yet embraces it and finds beauty in the grime. Some would call it naiveté. In Henri’s case, it’s an artistic courage that sees beyond the horrors of World War I, poverty, and the ravages of diseases that marred their generation.
Henri was no stranger to hardship. After his father got into an altercation that led to another man’s death, both his brother and he had to change their names so they could pose as foster sons. That’s how he came to change his name from his birth name, Robert Henry Cozad, to Robert Henri. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a school which would also inspire a young David Lynch almost a century later. Henri traveled throughout Europe to hone his craft and when he came back to the States, he led a group of artists that came to be known as the Ash Can School for their gritty depictions of daily life. Henri organized his own show after the National Academy of Design (of which he was part) rejected several artists in his circle that he greatly admired. There were no juries or awards, a measure that surprised many contemporaries. Henri was known as much for his defiance of artistic norms as for his passion for realism. His paintings teem with life, from a salacious Salome to his picture of a ruddy youth named Rosaline that espouses his statement, “Feel the dignity of a child. Do not feel superior to him, for you are not. A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle.”
His cities have a meticulous attention to detail, impressionistic, but not too much so, oozing detail to be more than illusory, drawing even the ‘ash cans.’ He introduced many of his students to some of the great artists of Europe, particularly French artists. But he was also one of the first to blaze the banner of American art, urging his students to create an altogether new style:
Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.
His comments cover everything related to art including the technical aspects; the dominance of one eye in relation to the other in an image; different types of brush strokes and the mood they engender; color palettes and hues they produce on being mixed; utilizing the background and how to de-emphasize parts to focus on the central image: “The simpler a background is the more mastery there must be in it.” The list goes on and on. He admires Walt Whitman, Rembrandt, and many other painters, but points out, “Judging a Manet from the point of view of Bouguereau the Manet has not been finished. Judging a Bouguereau from the point of view of Manet the Bouguereau has not been begun.”
As incredible as his art has been, it’s his words that have resonated as his legacy. It’s remarkable how relevant almost everything he says is even now. Here are some selections of lines that stuck out for me:
The greatest American, of whom the nation must be proud, will not be a “typical” American at all, but will be heir to the world instead of a part of it.
Don’t worry about the rejections. Everyone that’s good has gone through it. Don’t let it matter if your works are not “accepted” at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions… You are painting for yourself, not for the jury. I had many years of rejections.
Music is a structure of highly mathematical measure… The mind is a tool… An artist should not be afraid of his tools. He should not be afraid to know.
Someone has defined a work of art as a “thing beautifully done.” I like it better if we cut away the adverb… Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done.
Realize that a drawing is not a copy. It is a construction in very different material. A drawing is an invention.
One of the hardest things as an artist is clinging persistently through the struggles. There are few things as discouraging or depressing as seeing an aspiration die in someone you admire, all that is left being a skeletal facade of the artist. It’s all too understandable; circumstance and bills get in the way. Either bitterness creeps in and other people’s success becomes a source of resentment, they deny their relinquishment, or they make peace with their limitations and hope the next generation can reach the heights they themselves were unable to. These lines by Henri were especially poignant in relation to this aspect of artistry:
… In a commercial world there are thousands of lives wasted doing things not worth doing. Human spirit is sacrificed. More and more things are produced without a will in the creation… There is nothing so important as art in the world, nothing so constructive, so life-sustaining. I would like you to go to your work with a consciousness that it is more important than any other thing you might do… “What’s the use of it if you are not making money out of it?” is a too common question… Very false values. I say this and I know as well as any the difficulties of making sufficient money and the necessity of making it in order to live and go on. Go to your work because it is the most important living to you. Make great things – as great as you are. Work always as if you were a master, expect from yourself a masterpiece.
The Art Spirit never seems didactic, even though they consist completely of class notes. Instead, they help the reader remember the fundamentals of artistry without the artifice of some self-help book promising salvation by following an obscure secret only the author can sell. On the surface, The Art Spirit has many ideas that seem almost comically basic when taken out of context. And yet they are truths that ring on long after an initial perusal, much like the images upon which they are based. Every few nights, I’ll read through the pages, picking lines here and there. It feels like wandering an art gallery as well as a fueling station, a mobius strip with no real destination. Only the subject and engine comprises our own lives and the passions that drive us— in other words, our art spirit.