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Robert Henri’s Clean Slate

Henri's face

 

Robert Henri "Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes," 1908, Oil on canvas

Robert Henri
“Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes,” 1908, Oil on canvas

There is something special about the start of a new calendar year. During the early weeks of 2014, many of us are floating along with a renewed sense of hope; it’s a new beginning—a clean slate.

But more often than not, there’s no clean slate. We have the same families, the same homes, the same jobs, and the same lives.

Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to leave behind my banal routines and really start over. If I could reinvent myself, who would I become? Where would I go? What would I call myself? Would I bring my cat?

By the early twentieth century, American artist Robert Henri was a renowned realist painter, an academic, and a key figure of the Ashcan School. One would have never suspected that just a few decades earlier, Henri had asked himself several of these very questions. He left behind his home and his name to start a new life. Henri, however, did not make these changes out of boredom, but rather necessity.

Robert Henri

Robert Henri

Robert Henri, born Robert Henry Cozad, had a fairly ordinary childhood. His father, John Jackson Cozad, was a professional gambler turned real estate promoter; his mother, Theresa Gatewood Cozad, was a supportive wife and parent. In 1873, the family moved from Ohio to Nebraska, where Henri’s father founded the town of Cozad.

The family’s time in Nebraska was short lived. Their tie to the community was severed entirely in 1882 following a land dispute gone awry. John Jackson Cozad and a rancher, Alfred Pearson, both claimed ownership over the same plot of land. The disagreement grew increasingly tense, and in October of that year, tempers flared. There was an altercation, which ended abruptly when John Jackson Cozad shot Pearson in the face, mortally wounding him. Pearson died nearly two months later. Fearing he would be hanged, Cozad sought shelter with his family in Denver.

In an attempt to extricate themselves from the scandal, the Cozads adopted new names. With French ancestry on both sides of his family, Robert Henry Cozad, then seventeen, changed his name to Robert Henri. Unfamiliar with the French pronunciation of the name “Henri” (“On-REE”), he inadvertently Anglicized his new name, pronouncing it “Hen-rye.” He and his brother posed as foster brothers and adopted children of their biological parents, Richard Henry Lee and Theresa Lee, formerly John Jackson Cozad and Theresa Gatewood Cozad.

Eventually, John Jackson Cozad was cleared of wrongdoing, but fearing retribution, the family embraced their new identities and abandoned the name Cozad for the remainder of their lives.

In November of 1883, Henri returned to Nebraska with his mother. They assumed their former identities one last time in order to liquidate the family’s remaining land holdings. Payment was requested in cash to avoid a paper trail. According to Bennard Perlman’s biography, Robert Henri: His Life and Art, the paper money was sewn into Theresa Cozad’s skirts and petticoats, and Henri’s jacket and vest were lined with gold dollars. With the last of the loose ends tied up, the family traveled east to begin their new lives.

The story of Henri’s early life is an intriguing one—full of uncertainty, excitement, and money-lined undergarments. Albeit a fascinating tale, I have no envy for the man. There’s comfort to be found in the consistency of a predictable life. I think I’ll stick with my routine. And, I guess I’ll keep the cat.

Welcome to Cozad, NE, Population 4,022

Welcome to Cozad, NE, Population 4,022

EDITOR’s NOTE:  Cozad Nebraska seems to have forgiven, even embraced their native son after he made good as an artist and teacher.  Cozad is now the home of the Robert Henri Museum.  

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