A revolution in American art circles was led by Robert Henri (1865-1929), instigator of what was referred to as "The Eight" and the "revolutionary black gang." Henri, along with John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, James Preston, Edward Davis, and Charles Redfield, held academic and officially sanctioned art in contempt. They complained that it was cloistered, effete, monotonous, and "fenced in with tasseled ropes and weighed down with bronze plates."
These young artistic rebels believed that American art should be public in the broadest sense of the word and have relevance to the people, not just to art experts. According to Henri, American artists had too long been under the sway of the standards and subject matter of European high art. Henri and The Eight challenged the enshrining of European aesthetics. Following in the footsteps of novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and the essayist Henry David Thoreau, who celebrated what they called "an American spirit," Henri turned his artistic vision to native themes. By doing so, he insisted that the unique qualities of America should shape its artists and its art.
Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad on June 25, 1865 in Nebraska. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Henri became fascinated by the realism of his teacher, Thomas Eakins, who counseled his students to study their own country and to "portray its types." To the dismay of the academy, Eakins insisted that his students paint from nude models rather than from plaster molds. Eakins's rebelliousness against the decorum of academic art cost him his job but won the admiration of Henri, who continued his studies with Eakins's gifted student, Thomas Anshutz. In 1888 Henri left for Paris and enrolled in the bastion of classicism, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, for two years. While in Paris the radical Henri found Post-Impressionism, the European challenge to academic art, uninteresting.
When Henri returned to Philadelphia in 1891, a friend introduced him to two newspaper illustrators, William Glackens and John Sloan. They, along with other renegade artists, made Henri's studio at 806 Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia a gathering place. At these meetings the group discussed music, literature, art, and, most of all, the stifling confines of the academy. Unlike more institutional gatherings of artists, such as those of Philadelphia's Tile Club or the Art Club, The Eight's meetings were run in the spirit of a European café—spontaneous and casual discussions. As newspaper artists, Sloan, Glackens, Luks, and Shinn illustrated the city's disasters in quick sketches. Henri found their perspective refreshingly honest. He encouraged them to paint in oil, rather than in charcoal, and to see urban America as a worthy subject for serious art. As a result, The Eight became known for their psychological portraiture, their eye for detail, their sympathy with humanity, and their use of a drab, realistic urban palette.
Returned to Paris
In 1898 Henri married and went to Paris for his honeymoon. His compositions from this trip were a series of broadly painted figures that stood in contrast to simple silhouettes, and scenes in which shadow and light figured prominently. While these paintings were rejected by the progressive Salon des Indépendants, the French government purchased one of them, Snow in 1899. When he returned to the United States, Henri and his wife settled in New York City, a place he felt was more hospitable to his artistic vision than was Philadelphia. Henri took a job as an instructor at the New York School of Art, or the Chase School. Soon many of his friends joined him. While teaching in New York City, he continued to think about and challenge the place of art in the modern world. Henri believed that art should be realistic. He filled his canvases with unglamorous models and urban action scenes. At the same time, Henri believed that the camera freed artists from the obligation to paint realistically. Artists, he felt, should not paint for details but concentrate on the subjective underpinnings of the scene, such as the expression of the model and the feelings that the scene invoked.
Gained a Reputation
In the 1900s The Eight were known as the New York Realists. Many critics found their work to be joyless and unhealthy; others found it a compelling counterpart to the exposé journalism of the muckrakers and the social realism of novelists such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. Despite their distance from academic art, the conservative National Academy of Design had accepted all of them as members by 1905. Two years later, the National Academy of Design appointed Henri to judge its prestigious spring exhibition. His friends' excitement at finally having one of their own officiate such an exhibit was soon crushed when Henri discovered that he had no meaningful say in the evaluation process. The jury gave two of his own paintings a "number two" rating, meaning they were not to be hung on eye level, but either above or below. Henri was furious and quickly withdrew his canvases from the show.
"Apostles of Ugliness"
The group met shortly after Henri's resignation and decided to produce an alternative and cooperative exhibition to be financed by the artists themselves. William Macbeth offered them space in his gallery. Henri, Shinn, Luks, Davies, Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast participated in the show. A newspaper announcing the show referred to the artists as "the apostles of ugliness." The show opened in February 1908 and was a success, selling seven canvases. Critics denounced the show as unfit for civilized viewing. "Is it fine art," one critic asked, "to exhibit our sores?" Henri was singled out for his "streak of coarseness." Despite such criticism, The Eight had made a mark. They had created an alternative to the one-horse art town that New York City had been. Now, at least, those artists whom museums refused to exhibit had a place to display their work.
Ash Can School
In 1909 Henri established his own art school on upper Broadway in New York City, and many of his students followed him there from the New York School of Art, including George Bellows and Edward Hopper. Henri inspired another generation of modern painters, including Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Patrick Henry Bruce, and Stuart Davis. He continued to train his students in his philosophy of freedom of expression. He read from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Henri and his students took to wandering the streets looking for subjects and turned their sights on the city's new immigrants. They filled their canvases with scenes of Coney Island, Union Square, and the Bowery. Henri painted the rivers in and around New York City and painted them in bleakest winter. For Henri, the New York skyline, with its looming buildings and steel bridges, symbolized the energy of the city. Others labeled the creators of these works the "Ash Can School" for their gritty imagery.
Galvanized by another wave of rejections from the New York art establishment, Henri set out to organize a second group show of independent artists. He timed this show to coincide with the academy's spring exhibition in 1910. When the independents' show opened on West Thirty-fifth Street, Henri's portrait of his wife, which the academy had rejected, hung in the place of honor. The show was large, with more than two hundred canvases, displayed alphabetically by artist. Within an hour, one thousand people had crowded into the gallery, while another fifteen hundred waited outside. A riot squad eventually came to manage the disorderly crowd. Critics continued to see Henri and the show's other artists as vulgar and coarse. But others viewed The Eight's "revolt" as a success, claiming that it injected a healthy vitality into American art.
In his later years Henri continued to teach and to rebel against the boundaries between official and nonofficial art. He wrote a book, The Art Spirit in 1923. He continued to inspire students by demanding innovation in subject matter. Henri died in New York City on July 12, 1929.
Homer, William Innes and Violet Organ. Robert Henri and His Circle, Hacker, 1988.
Rose, Barbara. American Art Since 1900, Praeger, 1975.