Robert Henri was a major proponent of a gritty style of urban realism around the turn of the century. His style was shaped by early years in Europe in the 1890s, where he discovered
the vigorous brushwork of William Gedney Bunce, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Édouard Manet, and Diego Velázquez.
Originally Robert Henry Cozad, Robert Earl Henri was born on June 25, 1865, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, John Jackson Cozad, was a former gambler turned real estate developer, and his mother, Theresa Gatewood Cozad, was a housewife. In 1873, he and his family moved west to the great plains of Nebraska, where his father founded the town of Cozad. The town was inhabited primarily by farmers and, because their farms occupied choice grazing land, Henri's father had difficulties with the established cattle ranchers who had been there for many years. One evening, in 1882, one of the cattle ranchers attacked Henri's father with a knife. In self-defense, he mortally shot him with a pistol, then fled. Although he was later cleared of any wrong doing, he never returned. Instead, he settled in Denver, Colorado, where his family later reunited with him. In order to disassociate themselves from the scandal, each of the family members changed their names, and Robert Henry Cozad became Robert Earl Henri (pronounced Hen-rye).
Although successful in Denver, the Cozads, now the Lees, knew it offered few opportunities for their sons' educations and futures, so they moved east and settled in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1883. While there, Henri produced his first two paintings and, when seen by a friend, he was encouraged to seek formal art training. The following year, Henri enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), the oldest art institution in the United States, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The curriculum was rigorous. It included the study of anatomy, many hours of drawing, painting, and modeling the human figure, and classes in composition, perspective, and portraiture. With time, Henri improved his artistic skills and won the admiration of his instructor, Thomas Anshutz.
After two years at the PAFA, Henri realized he would have to go to Europe if he wanted full formal art training. So, in 1888, Henri went to Paris and attended the Académie Julian, and later transferred to the École des Beaux-Arts, one of the most famous and well-respected art schools in the world.
In 1891, Henri returned to Philadelphia and, the following year, began his long career as an art instructor; his first job was at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. He also continued formal art training at the PAFA.
During this time, Henri met and befriended a group of young artists and newspaper illustrators who admired him for his talent and the fact that he was one of few artists in Philadelphia to have studied in Paris. Henri invited these
men to his studio for weekly discussions on art, ethics, literature, music, and politics, which, consequently, created a dynamic artistic environment. More importantly, however, he lectured on the role of artists in the United States. Henri firmly believed that serious artists should develop their own means of expression, and not be pressured into following - and perpetuating - aesthetic conventions.
Of those who attended the weekly discussions, four were newspaper illustrators, namely William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan, who, collectively, were known as the "Philadelphia Four." Although three of the four had studied at the PAFA, they did not aspire to be serious artists. Henri, however, encouraged them to paint. He never imposed a style upon them because he wanted them to develop their own means of expression. He did offer advice, though: "Paint what you feel. Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you."
During the latter-half of the 1890's, Henri divided his time between Philadelphia and Paris. He believed Philadelphians, compared to Parisians, were not as accepting of his works. In order to gain acceptance and recognition in Philadelphia, or anywhere in the United States, he first had to prove himself as a successful artist in Paris. And that he did. In 1896, one of Henri's works was accepted for the Salon and, in 1899, three more of his works were accepted. The following year, Henri returned to the United States and settled in New York, where the "Philadelphia Four" also settled.
In 1902, Henri accepted a teaching position at the New York School of Art. He was an extremely popular instructor, and quickly found himself receiving awards and serving on juries at various institutions, including the relatively conservative National Academy of Design. Although Henri disagreed with the Academy and its stance on art, he hoped he could reform it from within. Although his works were often accepted for the Academy's annual exhibition, largely because they were portraits, works by other young artists, such as Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan, were not.
In 1907, after years of fighting with the Academy, Henri withdrew two of his works from the annual exhibition, citing an unfair attitude towards young artists, and organized his own exhibition, featuring his and his friends' works. The result was the exhibition of "The Eight" (i.e. Henri, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast) at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. The exhibition, which opened on February 3, 1908, was an immediate success, not only because of its publicity, which was provided for by the "Philadelphia Four," but also because the works were more accurate and livelier representations of life in the United States than anything selected for exhibition by the Academy. In all, over 7,000 visitors attended the exhibition and about $4,000 worth of works were sold. Reaction from the critics was mixed; although some disliked their coarse, vulgar subjects and lack of technique, others praised their creativity and truthfulness regarding the diversity and social conditions of the United States, as well as their individuality without being confined to the Academy's conservative standards.
The exhibition of "The Eight" marked a turning point in the art world, particularly in the United States. It proved, once and for all, that a group of progressive artists could hold an exhibition that was successful with both the amount of people it attracted and the amount of money it generated. And it was only a starting point. Its success gave "The Eight," as well as other progressive artists, the courage and determination to continue their fight against the Academy by holding larger and more radical exhibitions of both American and European art. Such was the case with the Armory Show of 1913, where Henri exhibited five works.
"The Eight" and the Ashcan School represented a tremendous aesthetic diversity that came to characterize the history of modern art in the United States. They functioned essentially as an exhibiting group with a shared philosophy, rather than a shared artistic style.
After several years of teaching at the New York School of Art, Henri opened his own school, the Henri School of Art, where he taught such artists as Patrick Henry Bruce, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, all of whom are represented in the Sheldon's permanent collection. He also taught at the educationally and politically radical Ferrer Modern School, where Man Ray and Leon Trotsky attended his classes and, later, at the Art Students' League. In 1923, Henri's importance and influence were carried beyond the classroom with the publication of his book The Art Spirit, a collection of his lecture notes, criticisms, and other remarks on art. It is still in print today.
Representing the full spectrum of artistic styles that manifest the scope of Robert Henri's influence, George Bellows, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Walt Kuhn, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan are all associated with this initial American foray into modernism in the twentieth century.
During the latter years of his life, Henri taught during the school year and traveled throughout the United States and Europe during the summer, often looking for subjects for his works. He grew particularly fond of Achill Island, off the coast of Ireland, where he spent many summers. Its simple way of life, not yet corrupted by civilization, was of great interest to him.
Henri died from cancer on July 12, 1929. He was 64..