Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Club - The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

February's book for Blue Twig Studio's monthly book club was The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.
Robert Henri, an American painter and teacher,  was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1865 and died in 1926 of cancer at age 64 in New York City. He was a leading figure of the Ashcan School of American realism and an organizer of the group known as "The Eight, a loose association of artists who protested the restrictive exhibition practices of the powerful, conservative National Academy of Design. No other American painter attracted such a large group of followers as Henri. He was an inspired artist and teacher who believed that everyone can find happiness and wisdom through the arts. Many of his paintings are in museums or private collections. Included among them are the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as others.

The Art Spirit contains the essential beliefs and theories of this great art teacher. It includes technical advice and critical comments for students, as well as, inspiration for those who enjoy art. Henri saw no division between art and life. To be an artist (or truly alive), one has to experience life to the fullest. Henri says to find beauty within us and the rest will follow.

This book contains notes, letters, critiques, and so forth, that Henri gave to his students rather than lecturing them in a classroom. His notes are almost poetic, with artful insight to give his students encouragement and direction. These notes are not in any particular order that I could see - I almost felt like I was conversing with my attention deficit husband, as topics would jump from this thought to that and back again. It was very disjointed. The book is one huge chapter, with no organization or thought to the order to Henri's notes, letters, or critiques. It was hard to read and would be better read in bits and pieces here and there.  But Henri has much to say on the subject of art - the book shows that art was his passion. He enjoyed teaching art - not only how to create art, but how to "live" art. He gives information about painting techniques and the use of models. However, I found some of this hard to follow, without seeing a photo of the artwork he was describing.

In spite of the disjointedness of the book, I did find some useful passages that meant something to me. These include the following:

  •      Henri says each of us have a song going on within us, to which we listen, that fills us with surprise and marvel. We allow our intellect to step in and retire the song and so become ordinary again. yet, this song is what motivates us to express ourselves.
  •      "Don't worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick to you and show you up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do."
  •      "...to free myself from any idea that what I produce must be art or must respond in any way to any standard.  ...It must be what it is and must have been made because it was a great pleasure to make it."
  •      "Art is art, whether on a canvas, in stone, on a book cover, an advertisement or a piece of furniture." 
  •      "Keep as far as possible all your studies, all your failures, if somewhere in them appear any desirable qualities. ...You can learn much from others but more from yourself."
  •      "No work of art is really ever finished. They only stop at good places."
  •      "...there is artist in every man; and that to him the possibility of development and of expression and the happiness of creation is as much a right and as much a duty to himself, as to any of those who work in the especially ticketed ways."
  •      "In every human being there is the artist, and whatever his activity, he has an equal chance to express the result of his growth and his contact with life.  ...The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation. ...It is only in creative work that joy may be found."

I really came away with Henri's belief that anyone can be an artist as beauty can be found in living life to the fullest. That is what artists should strive to capture - the beauty they find in life around them. I found this encouraging - to find what I enjoy and just do it to the best of my ability without worrying about what others think of my "art".

Next month's book is  "Show Your Work"by Austin Kleon. We read his book, "Steal Like an Artist" a few months back (see post dated July 1, 2014) . It was fun and easy to read.  I'm sure this book will be, too.

See you at the end of the month!
Keep creating!


  1. It was a bit of a struggle to follow. I agree it was very disjointed. I like the passages you shared here, they do give us a glimpse into how he thought and felt which was perhaps well ahead of his time.

    1. Thanks. I agree that he was probably ahead of his time with his thinking. I did like his pushing students to really look at the world around them and see the beauty/life with an artist's eye and to portray what that beauty/life is.