Painted in 1909 by Robert Henri, American Artist
SN 937, Oil on Canvas, 77 x 37 inches

Docent to Docent Presentation – July 23, 2007 – given by Jill Strode

Art stories are almost a genre unto themselves, in which the painting is actually subservient to the story. Does it matter how a painting uses symmetry or perspective or spacing – or whether it is naturalistic or abstract? The art expert’s sagacious commentary on composition, technique and aesthetics is rarely germane. When the story of a painting is inspiring and memorable, the artwork is magically transformed into something more than an image celebrated for its mastery of artistic elements. In the viewer’s mind, the work of art becomes even more vibrant, more splendid, more mythical, and more remarkable. Although you all are familiar with the particular artwork we’ll discuss here, I hope that I can offer you this extra pleasant experience.

Robert Henri was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 24, 1865. He died in New York City, July 12, 1929. His true name was Robert Henry Cozad, which he changed in 1883, after his father was involved in a murder. To honor his French ancestry, he adopted his own middle name as his surname, taking the French spelling – but insisting all of his life that it be pronounced in the American vernacular – Henri (with the long i) not ‘Anree’.

This painting by Robert Henri has always been one of two or three very special favorites of mine in this magnificent Ringling collection. When I learned that it had been selected to hang in an exhibition with twenty-nine other American paintings at the Musee du Louvre in Paris (June 14 – September 18, 2006) I became particularly inspired to research for reasons. Why was this painting purchased (1974) for the Ringling, by whom, and why was it selected for this prestigious AMERICAN ARTISTS AND THE LOUVRE exhibit?

In the preface to the Catalogue, the director of the Musee du Louvre states that this was the first exhibition of American artists ever to be shown there. The purpose was to explore the roots of the Franco American artistic exchange and the history of the Louvre as a site for generations of American artists. ( At this point I mentioned a recent Smithsonian magazine article -January 2007 – which is filled with gorgeous photos, etc, of many famous 19th century American artists and their work in the ‘city of light’)

Robert B. Tonkin was the curator here at the time this painting was purchased from the Chapellier Galleries in New York, which was the Henri estate representative. That answers a little. It is the press release for this Paris exhibition that fills in some more of the blanks. Extremely special is the fact that a reproduction of our SALOME is the only picture in that press release! We are told that Robert Henri was inspired by the sensual power of the female form as portrayed by Peter Paul Rubens in his Marie de Medici cycle. The 24 paintings in that cycle were among the most difficult, time consuming and successful of Rubens’ projects – and which project, of course, hangs today at the Musee du Louvre. I have brought copies of seven of these exciting Rubens paintings, and we will enjoy them here together.

The connection of Rubens to Henri is powerful – although there is obviously no direct correspondence between Henri’s provocative dancer and the boisterous nudes depicted in Peter Paul Rubens’ Marie de Medici cycle (1621-1625), this wonderful American artist, a major personality in the history of American art, nevertheless captured the Flemish master’s flair for portraying the sensuous power of women.

Robert Henri had substantial and outstanding training . He began at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts , and went on to the Academie Julian in Paris. In Europe in 1895, he adopted a dark-toned, broadly brushed style influenced by Velazquez, Frans Hals (more connections to the Ringling collection) – as well as the early paintings of Manet. His portrait studies in these styles were accepted in the Paris Salons of 1896 and 1897. I have brought some samples of these portrait studies which we will share later. Through a one-man exhibition in Philadelphia in 1897, he came to the attention of William Merritt Chase who was an important artist and teacher of his generation.

Chase taught at the Art Student’s League of New York and then at his own school of art founded in 1896. He introduced Henri into the New York art world. In 1900 Henri established himself in New York and began teaching at the school founded by Chase. In 1908 he established his own school.

Even at this early stage, Henri was helping younger artists in their struggle for independence against the New York art establishment. He succeeded William Merritt Chase as New York’s most charismatic teacher of painting. His philosophy of artistic individuality became a fundamental assumption in American art in the first half of the twentieth century. By 1906, when he was elected to the National Academy of Design, he had begun to undermine its authority. Angered by the restrictive exhibition policies of the Academy, Henri
helped to organize an independent exhibition of a group of artists who became known as THE EIGHT.

The first exhibitions of this group occurred in 1908 and 1910. Henri’s chief followers were a number of artistic newspaper illustrators whom he had encouraged to paint and to take up painting as a serious profession: John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows, William Glackens, Everett Shinn – to name a few –(we have seen examples of some of their works in our recent exhibition here from the Corcoran Museum) They formed the core of the group later dubbed THE ASHCAN SCHOOL. The demands of journalism required these artists to create their images quickly, using bold marks and broad brush strokes that would reproduce well on a printing press and still meet a dead line. For all of these artists, capturing the New York scene – its skyscrapers, parks and people, in a loose realism, was the best means of portraying its vibrancy.

Why ‘Ashcan’? In an explicit challenge to the ‘art for art’s sake’ aesthetic of the late nineteenth century, Henri proposed an ‘art for life’, one that would abandon the polished techniques and polite subject matter of the academicians ; it would celebrate instead the vitality which the artist saw around him in everyday situations. They drew subject matter from life in the Bowery, Lower Sixth Avenue, West 14th Street – images of street urchins, prostitutes, athletes, immigrants,
Boxers, dancers, actors – Henri himself painted with similar vitality and spontaneity – mainly portraits and landscapes using colorful impasto brushwork and strong chiaroscuro – the dramatic contrast of light and dark. This confers a strong debt to the Carravagesque Baroque styles which we can observe here at the Ringling – and, of course some of which came from his years at the Louvre in Paris. Mattia Preti, Francesco Cairo, and Bernardo Strozzi, whose works are in this Museum, were followers of Caravaggio. Look at all of their similarities of style with Henri, even though they lived hundreds of years apart! We have only to go back into our galleries to observe their uses of color and of ordinary people to come full circle to the work of Robert Henri. Henri’s unorthodox ideals shaped his choice of subjects and the style of his paintings – particularly the city images, rendered in dark tones and painterly brushwork that defined the movement later given the name ASHCAN SCHOOL.

Notwithstanding his commitment to an art of modernity, Henri acknowledged the influence of the Louvre on his own artistic development. Writing from Paris in 1898, he noted, ‘This is one of my greatest advantages in Paris, to go to the Louvre – see what is really good and great. It is my way of study and there is nothing better or more stimulating than my visits there.’ Henri’s reputation was even more celebrated because of his ability as a teacher and a leader of the ASHCAN SCHOOL. His ideas were disseminated further , some years before his death, in The Art Spirit (1923), a collection of his lectures, precepts and attitudes towards art.

Robert Henri was a cognoscenti of modern music, dance, and theater. When New York audiences were scandalized by Richard Strauss’s 1907 opera ‘Salome’, based upon Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, the opera performance inspired the intrepid artist to invite Mademoiselle Voclexca to perform the notorious ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in his studio. In the painter’s interpretation, the lithesome biblical temptress strikes an animated pose that reveals her legs through her transparent costume. Her long left leg is thrust out with a sexual arrogance, and shining through the black veil is the sexual promise of a thousand women. With glistening skin and bright red lips , she is the personification of all things sensuous.

By 1900, the myth of the West as the last frontier had slid into nostalgia. The real frontier was urban – a place of rapid change where class ground against class. New York City was the epicenter, and the Ashcan School were the painters who reported on this new and exciting landscape. It was they who created the first art of urban America. Despite the socialist philosophy which many of them shared, theirs was not, however, an art of social commentary – it was simply one that felt the pulse of city life. Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera shocked society into a new sexual awareness. Henri’s gorgeous painting certainly played its part!

However, the ASHCAN SCHOOL was soon eclipsed by a rush to a more radical modernism, with which all of us are frequently overwhelmed, but its influence was felt once again in the 1930’s. During the Depression, most American artists split into two camps. We see representations of this in our collections in this gallery (21). Please take a moment to notice here the work of Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh. The Regionalists, and the Social Realists – although bitterly opposed, drew freely upon influences from the ASHCAN SCHOOL. We observed this recently also in a number of paintings from the Corcoran Museum Exhibition.

Please join me in looking over the copies I have here from the Rubens Marie de Medici Cycle – as well as copies of a few of the works of Robert Henri and his followers. Enjoy! And thank you!

Read more and view pics of:
Rubens' Medici Cycle
Photo and work of Robert Henri
Group of eight - Ashcan School

Grove’s Dictionary of Art
Mitchell Merling – Ringling:the Art Museum
Anthony F. Janson – History of Art Revised & Expanded
Exhibition Catalogue – American Artists and the Louvre, Paris 6/14-9/18, 2006
American Artists and the Louvre – Press Release, Musee du Louvre
Heidi Taylor, Assistant Registrar,
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
2001 Ringling Museum Docent Corps resource page