Robert Henri
Biography of Ashcan School Painter, New York Cityscapes.

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Snow in New York (1902)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
Surely one of Robert Henri's
greatest 20th century paintings.

Robert Henri (1865-1929)


Artistic Training
The Group of Eight and the Ashcan School
The Armory Show

Paintings by Robert Henri
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.


American painter, Robert Henri was one of the leading figures of the Ashcan School of Art in New York. This was an art movement best known for a style of oil painting which portrayed the realism of everyday life in New York. Henri was also noted for his portrait art and figurative works. Born in Ohio, his family moved to New York when he was a teenager. He studied in Paris at the Julian Academy, where he came under the influence of French Impressionism. He continued his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was at the Pennsylvania Academy, that he met the first members of the Ashcan School, the modern artists William Glackens (1870-1938), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953) and John French Sloan (1871-1951). The other painters who joined to make "The Eight", were Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) and Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924). They held their first group exhibition in 1908 to critical acclaim. By this time Henri had rejected traditional academic painting and Impressionism in favour of a raw, realistic, almost muddy style. In 1913 five of Henri's paintings were accepted for the famous Armory show, the exhibition that first introduced the American public to European modern art. Between 1915 and 1927 he was an influential teacher at the Arts Student League, some of his pupils included Edward Hopper (1882-1967), George Bellows (1882-1925), Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) and Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953). Henri's best known paintings include: Snow in New York (1902, National Gallery, Washington DC) and Tam Gan (1914, Albright-Knox Art Gallery).



Artistic Training

He was born Robert Henry Cozad in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a professional gambler and businessman. In 1881 his father was indicted for manslaughter and a year later, the family fled to Atlantic City, New Jersey. His father was cleared of the crime but his name was ruined. To avoid further scandal he changed the family name to Henri. In 1886, Henri enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying under Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851–1912), who himself had learned from American Realist Thomas Eakins (1844–1916). Henri also studied under Thomas Hovenden (1840–95), a painter of domestic realistic scenes. In 1888 he travelled to Paris and enrolled at the Julian Academy, under the classical academic painter Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825–1905), and Tony Robert-Fleury (1837–1912), known for his historical compositions and portraits. Although Henri was to reject many aspects of his academic training, from Bouguereau he learned the importance of designing the canvas as a whole in order to achieve a unified composition. He also adopted the academic technique of making rapid oil sketches (known as pochades) as preparatory studies for larger works. During the summers, like many artists before him, he painted in Brittany and Barbizon, and visited Italy to view its Antiquities and Renaissance masterpieces.

In 1891 he studied briefly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts before returning to America and the Pennsylvania Academy. At the same time, he became an art teacher at the School of Design for Women, where he taught for three years. He continued to make regular trips to Paris, where he was particularly influenced by the work of Frans Hals (1580-1666), Edouard Manet (1832–83), Goya (1746-1828) and Velazquez (1599–1660) in the Louvre. In 1899, his painting The Snow was purchased by the National Museum of Luxembourg, this was his first museum sale.


The Group of Eight and the Ashcan School

In Philadelphia, Henri began to attract a group of followers who met at his studio to discuss culture and aesthetics. They discussed the novels of Balzac, Tolstoy and Zola, marked by their powerful descriptions of the lives of the working class. Henri became convinced that art could be noble, on a par with writing, and could a meaningful tool for portraying the plight of the poor.

He shared this thought with four others, who were illustrators for The Philadelphia Press who became known as the 'Philadelphia Four': William Glackens, Everett Shinn, George Luks and John French Sloan. Henri met them all while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy. They were soon joined by Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson and Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) and, together, became known as the Group of Eight. Their subject matter was the grit and dirt of cityscapes, in particular New York where they were based.

Henri's Snow in New York (1902, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) is a wonderful example. He depicts New York's brownstone apartments hemmed in by faceless city blocks. The noise of the city is quietened by the newly fallen snow, which reveals grey slush and traffic ruts left by the horse and carts. The artist urged his students to reject the 'Ideal' and instead to focus on 'Reality'. This was the core of his individual contribution to American art. He promoted the idea that painting should spring from life, not from academic theories or classical aesthetics, and became a powerful influence in persuading young painters to capture the richness of urban reality, rather than rely on academic notions about art.

The Group of Eight held their first famous exhibition in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. The work on display was diverse, only five of the artists were painting gritty urban scenes. There was no central organisation, in fact the first person to use the term 'ash can' was the cartoonist Art Young (1866-1943) in 1916. The term was later also applied to other artists such as Edward Hopper and George Bellows as they also portrayed city scenes. However Hopper rejected the classification, stating that his cityscapes had 'not a single incidental ashcan in sight'. All were unified however in their rejection of the genteelism of American Impressionism - see for instance works by Childe Hassam - which was more popular at the time. In contrast to the lightness of Impressionism, the Ashcan's canvasses were generally dark in tone, capturing fleeting but harsh elements of daily life. Prostitutes, boxing matches, drunks and overflowing tenements were common themes.


Henri is also known for his portrait paintings, which remained his primary form of expression. He built on the tradition of American Realism established by the great Thomas Eakins. His refusal to beautify his sitter beyond reality earned him the epithet the 'Manet of Manhattan'. In light of this, it's perhaps not surprising that his portraiture was not especially lucrative, and he was obliged to rely on teaching for his main income. His early portraits were dramatically dark, in the manner of Velazquez, Whistler and Manet - painted so as to impress juries at exhibitions. However, after the 1913 Armory Show, he took a trip to California which led to a period of great experimentation: his paintings took on a fresher, more modern look, as can be seen in Tam Gan (1914, Albright-Knox Art Gallery). By 1916, although no longer viewed as a forerunner of new developments, he continued to experiment with his painting. A masterpiece of this period is the life-size painting of Ruth St Denis, a dancer, painted in 1919. Between 1924 and 1928, he spent periods of time on Achill Island in Ireland, where he painted the local children as well as the local landscape. See also: Irish Art Guide.

The Armory Show

In 1910 Henri organised the first Exhibition of Independent Artists and, in 1913, helped the Association of American Painters and Sculptors organise the Armory Show. This Show, also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art became a seminal event in the history of American art. It introduced amazed New Yorkers - accustomed to realist art - to avant-garde art from Europe, including highly abstract works of Cubism and Futurism. The show served as a catalyst to American artists to free themselves from realism, and create their own independent artistic language. On the other hand, it also marked the point at which Henri's influence began to wane, although he continued to win awards and recognition.


From 1915 to 1927 he taught at the prestigious Art Students League, where he was a progressive and highly influential teacher. He continued to paint, displaying an interest in the works of Whistler and certain symbolist painters. He wrote and spoke about the American painters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, and the Europeans Velazquez and Manet. Henri's thoughts on art inspired his students, influenced later realist movements like American Scene Painting and Regionalism, and he continued to be quoted well into the 1980s, latterly by the graffiti artist Keith Haring (1958-90). Henri died in 1929. Two years later the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition in his honour.

Paintings by Robert Henri can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

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