June 24 is the birthday of influential American Modernist painter, Robert Henri ( 1865-1929). Henri is best known for his innovative approach to figural realism. One of Henri’s best known paintings is Jesseca Penn in Black with White Plumes, currently on view at Crystal Bridges, showcasing the artist’s interest in evoking mood and personal expression throughout his work in an attempt to create a distinctly American style of art.
Henri sought to portray an honest depiction of America in his work, inspired by writers such as Walt Whitman. Early in his career, Henri began painting landscapes and urban street scenes before his focus shifted to primarily figural portraits. Henri developed a signature style of pictorial realism that aimed to capture the energy and expression of his subject, rather than painstaking technical rendering.
Henri found inspiration for his work from the Impressionists, which can be observed in his energetic brushstrokes described as bravura—an Italian word meaning “great skill” which refers to an bold, energetic style—and impasto, a thick, textural application of paint. He made a career out of his efforts to develop a definitively American artistic style that emphasized individuality and personal expression. Henri’s color palette usually consists of dark tones and the use of chiaroscuro—a strong contrast of light and dark—inspired by European masters such as Goya, Caravaggio, and Vasquez.
Frequently dissatisfied with the exclusivity of the early twentieth century art world in New York, Henri went formed the “Independents,” a group of artists who challenging the formal institutions. Later, they evolved into “The Eight,” a group who rebelled against the restrictive exhibition policies of the National Academy of Design. The Eight were later referred to as the Ashcan School, comprising several newspaper illustration artists known for their gritty, honest depictions in post-Industrial urban landscapes. Ashcan works such as George Bellows’ Excavation at Night and Everett Shinn’s A French Music Hall can be viewed alongside Henri’s Jesseca Penn in Crystal Bridges’ Early Twentieth Century Gallery.
Instead of ascribing to the traditional norm of using predominantly white, upper-class subjects for painted portraits, Henri instead found inspiration in capturing the energy of everyday individuals. He also painted an array of multicultural subjects in historical European portrait styles—an unusually inclusive approach. Some of his models included children, gypsies and matadors (as seen in The Spanish Gypsy, 1912), and Native Americans in the American Southwest. Utilizing an array of cultural and socioeconomic subject matter, Henri referred to his subjects as “my people.”
Equally important to Henri’s role as a painter was his role as an educator. Some of his students included highly celebrated American painters such as George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and Stuart Davis (whose vibrant, abstract paintings responding to pop culture and the musical patterns of jazz can be seen in the upcoming exhibition Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, opening at Crystal Bridges September 16).
Henri’s painting philosophy encouraged his students to immerse themselves in the life and culture of their own time. Henri believed this honest approach to seeking subjects and material for one’s art would produce the most authentically and definitively American art of the time, creating a lasting effect on the artistic motivations of those who followed him.