Robert Henri, a leading figure of the Ashcan School in art, was born Robert Henri Cozad in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1865. His father John Cozad was a real estate developer and founded the town of Cozaddale, Ohio and later when the family moved west, he founded the Dawson County town of Cozad in the state of Nebraska. Robert had one brother, also named John, and was a distant cousin of Mary Cassatt, the much admired artist and printmaker. In October 1882, Henri’s father became embroiled in a dispute with a rancher over the right to pasture cattle on land claimed by the family. When the dispute turned physical, Cozad shot Pearson fatally with a pistol. Cozad was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but the mood of the town turned against him. He fled to Denver, Colorado, and the rest of the family followed shortly afterwards. In order to disassociate themselves from the scandal, family members changed their names. The father became known as Richard Henry Lee, and his sons posed as adopted children under the names Frank Southern and Robert Earl Henri. In 1883 the family moved again, first to New York City and then on to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
At the age of twenty-one, Robert began studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Robert Anschutz, the painter who also taught several well-known painters including Everett Shin, George Luks and George Bellows who along with Henri would become known as the Ashcan School. Two years later in 1888 Robert Henri travelled to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian and later he was admitted to École des Beaux Arts. It was during this time that he embraced Impressionism.
In 1891 he returned to America and settled down in Philadelphia and began teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. He became friendly with a group of artists and newspaper illustrators and they, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shin and John French Sloan, became known in artistic circles as the Philadelphia Four. In 1898 he married Linda Craige who was a student attending one of his private art classes, and they set off on a two-year long honeymoon/vacation in France.
In 1902 he started teaching at the New York School of Art and many “soon to be famous” artists were taught by him, including Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Louis Fancher, Stuart Davis and Norman Raeburn. Sadly in 1905 after a long period of poor health his wife Linda died.
A year later in 1906 Robert Henri was elected to the National Academy of Design which would later be known as The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts but his tenure at this establishment was short lived for when works of art by his painter friends were rejected for the Academy’s 1907 exhibition, he resigned labelling the Academy as a “cemetery of art” and threatened to stage his own art exhibition.
He carried out his threat the next year, 1908, when he and his friends staged a landmark exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York entitled The Eight after the eight artists who displayed their works). Besides his own works and those of the Philadelphia Four who had moved from Philadelphia to be with Henri, the other exhibitors were Maurice Prendegast, Ernest Lawson and Arthur B Davies. The exhibition was a sensation and these painters would soon become associated with the Ashcan School, which was a realist artistic movement and was best known for its portrayal scenes of daily life in the city of New York. The name “Ashcan” was first used to describe the artistic movement some years later by the American cartoonist and writer, Art Young.
In May 1908 Henri married for a second time, this time to Marjorie Organ a twenty-two year old Irish immigrant. Henri continued to paint and teach art in various establishments and when he was sixty-four he was chosen, by the Arts Council of New York, as one of the top three living American artists. A year later in 1929 Robert Henri died of cancer aged 65 and in 1931 the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a Memorial exhibition of his work to honour this giant of American Art.
My Daily Art Display for today is a work by Robert Henri called The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) which he completed in 1906 and was one of the paintings I saw at the National Gallery this week at their small exhibition entitled An American Experiment. It is a life-sized oil on canvas painting (196cms x 98cms) and is quite dark. The model for the painting was Josephine Nivison who studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art the previous year. After Henri befriended her, she and some other students from his class travelled with him to Europe. Miss Nivison later married another influential painter, Edward Hopper (see my blog Nighthawks on Jan 23rd) and she helped promote his work and acted as his model.
In the picture her body is undefined due to the all-encompassing heavy black artist’s smock she is wearing which reaches down to her feet. We are just able to glimpse the white collar and the red patterned shoulder of her dress she wears under the smock. Against a plain brown background, she clutches hold of her paintbrushes in her left hand as she looks out at us with a very determined expression.
This painting was one of only a few Robert Henri painted in 1906, the year after his wife’s death.