Artists & Designers

Robert Henri (1865-1929)

Robert Henri's importance to American painting lies not only in his work, but also in his accomplishments as a teacher and crusader against academic conservatism. He favored a new democratic humanism in life and art, and his dedication to liberal ideas and younger artists fostered the development of modern painting in America. Henri was the founder of The Eight, a group of American painters who launched independent group exhibitions beginning in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery (New York, NY).

Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad in 1865 in Cincinnati, the son of a professional gambler and gunfighter. His earliest art education was at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the tutelage of Thomas Anshutz, himself a gifted student of Thomas Eakins and a follower of the American realist tradition. In 1888, Henri went to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian under the traditional French artists, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. By the 1890's Henri was attracted to the French Impressionists, and after his return to Philadelphia in 1891, he continued his studies under the American Impressionist, Robert Vonnoh. Henri soon abandoned impressionism, however, in favor of his broadly-painted, dark-toned realism which characterized his work in the early 20th century. Having studied with Eakins' associates in Philadelphia and Paris, Henri was well equipped to pursue a realistic urban art, rendered with the spirited brushwork, somber palettes, and strong chiaroscuro he admired in painters like Frans Hals, Diego Velasquez, and Edouard Manet.

Henri settled in New York City in 1900, setting up a studio and becoming an instructor at the New York School of Art. He became disenchanted with the institution's strict academic approach and founded his own school. He attracted many innovative, young pupils and encouraged them to rebel against the popular subjects, which he considered the sentimental and insipid. He preached freedom from European domination, use of American subject matter and realism based on direct experience and observations of life. His teaching inspired individual creativity and independence; consequently, his pupils experimented with new styles and new subject matter.

Like William Merritt Chase, Henri was admired as a teacher as much as a painter. Some of his better known pupils include George Bellows, Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper. He and his students and Charcoal Club colleagues, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, made their official break from American academicism in 1908. Rebelling against the academy's jury selection methods, they organized the now famous independent exhibition "The Eight" at Macbeth Gallery. He had been on the jury for the National Academy of Design but then in 1908 he was not reelected as a jury member because he wanted to liberalize the teaching and exhibition standards of the Academy.

Throughout his life Henri continued his important role as teacher and champion of the individual and of art based on the observation of life. Many of them were his students at the Art Students League in New York. The Eight created a revolution in subject matter and strove for the liberation of the artist from academic attitudes. Sarcastically dubbed “the Ashcan school” by the press, these artists explored urban life in all its varieties. In 1923, he published his artistic and teaching philosophies as a book, The Art Spirit (1923). Its lucid writing style and appealing ideas continue to make the book a valuable source for student painters.

Adapted from

  • DMA research documents for "Contemporary Extravaganza," Education files, 2000.
  • Gail Davitt, DMA biographical essays, Education files, 1986-1987.
  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, DMA label copy (1909.2), August 1993.
  • William Keyse Rudolph, DMA label copy (1909.2), August 2005.
  • P.F.R., DMA research essay, Collections Records Object File, n.d.

Fun Facts

  • Robert Henri was a distant cousin of Mary Cassatt.
  • Robert Henri's father, John Jackson Cozad established two towns during his son's childhood. The first, Cozaddale, Ohio, was founded in 1871. Two years later, he named a new town in western Nebraska after the family's surname.
  • While teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and participating in the Charcoal Club, Henri befriended the younger artists who went on to form the nucleus of The Eight.

Web Resources

  • Robert Henri Museum
    Check out this museum, founded in one of his childhood hometowns of Cozad, Nebraska, and dedicated to preserving the artist's legacy and passion for art education.
  • Antiques Roadshow
    Watch this clip from the well-known PBS appraisal show featuring a painting by Robert Henri.
  • Americans in Paris, 1860-1900
    Read H. Barbara Weinberg's essay about this group of expatriate artists on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.