Seeking the Art Spirit: Robert Henri Inspires Generations

My copy of The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri

My copy of The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri

If you have this book on your shelf, it might be a good time to get re-acquainted with the genius of painter and teacher Robert Henri, whose thoughts and sayings were amazingly collected by former student Margery Ryerson. He speaks not only to students and painters, but to our society at large concerning our pursuit of art.

Henri’s comments sometimes resonated with me as an art student, and sometimes they went right over my head. But as time went on, and I learned more about painting, his words made so much more sense. So I will be rereading this book in days to come as I look back on 2012 and look forward to a new year of art and design, a new life of passion in my pursuits.

Henri gives the artist permission to create something truly original, without fear of disapproval, to be true to her own vision. That is only a snippet of his philosophy.

“I have been trying to make this matter clear–this matter that the whole fun of the thing is in seeing and inventing, trying to refute a common idea that education is a case of collecting and storing instead of making.” Making art is to be fun? We see and then we invent? I would not be a painter if art was not fun or full of new possibilities of expression. It’s much too demanding a profession if there were not rewards like this for me.

“Tam Gan,” 1914, oil on canvas, by the American Ashcan school artist Robert Henri. Courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

On originality he says: “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.” Painters and illustrators are always wondering when they will achieve a unique style of their own. Henri knew that each of us has that seed inside, if we will grow it despite what is in fashion. So art takes courage and a whole lot of practice. (Remember the fun part when the work gets tough, as it will.)

Finally, a good word to us all: “Cherish your emotions and never undervalue them.” Permission to be human, with all of our faults and shortcomings is a sort of freedom we can own. I’ll remember that as I look back on 2012.

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