Robert Henri: The Art Spirit and Painting a Portrait

12 Jul

Work with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in de-laying.

(Robert Henri)

Robert Henri, Mary of Connemara, 1913

Robert Henri, American artist connected with the Ashcan School, died on 12th July 1929 in New York. As I already mentioned in my previous post about Robert Henri’s “Irish Lass” painted in 1913, Henri was an amazing art teacher, along with being a brilliant and prolific artist, a rare combination, and his teachings were collected in 1923 (six years before he died in 1929) in a work called “The Art Spirit” by his students. Many of them were poor workers who would often work all day, then attend Henri’s painting classes in the evening and slept outdoors, on some bench in the park because they could not afford a room. This only shows how Henri aimed to awake the artist in all of his students and didn’t care about social class or what jobs they had during the day, for Henri the ability to be an artist was something everyone possessed and it needed to be awaken by a good teacher or something else. Here are some excerpts from “The Art Spirit” where Henri speaks of the way a portrait ought to be painted:

When later you come to the painting of the features of the face, consider well the feature’s part in relation to the idea you have to express. It will not be so much a question of painting that nose as it will be painting the expression of that nose. All the features are concerned in one expression which manifests the state of mind or the condition of the sitter. No feature should be started until you have fully comprehended its character and have established in your mind the manner of its full accomplishment. To stop in the process of drawing the lines of a feature to inquire “what next” is surely to leave a record of disconnection. No feature should be drawn except in its relation to the others. There is a dominating movement through all the features. There is sequence in their relationship. There is sequence in the leading lines of the features with the movements of the body. This spirit of related movement is very important in the drawing or painting of hair.”

Hair is beautiful in itself, this should not be forgotten, but it is the last position of importance it takes in the make-up of a portrait.The hair must draw the grace and dignity—perhaps the brains—of the head. The lights on the hair must be used to stress the construction, to vitalize, accentuate and continue movement. The outline of the hair over the face must be used as a principal agent for the drawing of the forms of the forehead and temples, and must at the same time partake of the general movement of the shoulders and of the whole body. The hair is to be used as a great drawing medium. It is to be rendered according to its nature, but it is not to be copied. Think well on this; it is very important.”

“The eyebrows are hair in the last instance. To a good draftsman they are primarily powerful evidences of the muscular actions of the forehead, which muscular actions are manifestations of the sitter’s state of being. The muscles respond instantly to such obvious sensations as surprise, horror, pain, mirth, inquiry, etc., and the actions of the muscles are most defined in their effect on that strongly marked line of hair, the eyebrow. However subtle the emotion, the eye-brow by its definiteness marks the response in the muscular movement.In certain heads, the eyebrow, while normal, still holds a very positive gesture. There are those, therefore, who carry in repose an expression of sadness, boredom, surprise, dignity, and some accentuate the force or direction in the action of looking. To a good draughtsman the eyebrow is a living thing. It develops a habit which it expresses in repose and it flashes intelligence of every changing emotion.

Robert Henri, Irish Lass, 1913

By the spring in the drawing of the eyelash the quick action of the eye may be suggested. The upper eyelid and lash generally cast a shadow scarcely observed yet very effective on the eyeball. The white of the eye is more often the same color as the flesh about it than the average painter is likely to think it to be. The pupil is larger in quiet light, becoming very small by contraction when looking into brilliant light.The highlight in the pupil is a matter of drawing although best done with one quick touch. Its direction, shape, edges,and its contrast in color and value to the pupil give shape,curve, brilliancy or mark the contrary.”

The lines and forms in the clothes should be used to draw the body in its sensitive relationship with the head.The wrinkles and forms of the clothes are building mate-rial not for tailoring in your hands but for established basic lines rising to the head. There is an orchestration through-out the whole canvas. Nothing is for itself, but each thing partaking of the other is living its greatest possibility, is surpassing itself with vitality and meaning and is part of the making of a great unity. (…)

Robert Henri, Little Irish Girl, 1913

“Do not tell me that you as students will first learn how to draw and then afterwards attend to all this. It is only through such motives that you can learn to draw. This kind of thought is drawing, the hand must obey the spirit. With motive you will become clairvoyant of means, will seize and command them. Without motive you will wabble about.

Realize that your sitter has a state of being, that this state of being manifests itself to you through form, color and gesture, that your appreciation of him has depended on your perception of these things in their significance, that they are there of your selection (others will see differently), that your work will be the statement of what have been your emotions, and you will use these specialized forms, colors and gestures to make your statement. Plainly you are to develop as a seer, as an appreciator as well as a craftsman. You are to give the craftsman in you a motive, else he cannot develop. All that I have said argues the predominant value of gesture. Gesture expresses through form and color the states of life.

Work with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in de-laying. Get the greatest possibility of expression in the larger masses first. Then the features in their greatest simplicity in concordance with and dependent on the mass. Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying.

2 Responses to “Robert Henri: The Art Spirit and Painting a Portrait”

  1. alan 12th Jul 2020 at 9:26 pm #

    Hello there how are you? fascinating quotations. My wife has been trying to do portraits and is frustrate at how difficult it is. I must show her your post for good advice. Take care! alan

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 13th Jul 2020 at 9:10 pm #

      I am rather cheerful now, after a lovely walk in nature and hazelnut ice cream, that is a sincere answer he he. I do hope you are doing fine too! Portraits tend to be difficult, that is why I prefer to paint other things when I do watercolours, so I hope she doesn’t get too frustrated and doesn’t give up. Feeling artistic is more important than making an art product, as Robert Henri said: “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” Good luck to your wife in her art endeavors and take care!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: