Communicating Art

Robert Henri, 1897

I am reading a marvelous book called The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. Yes, I had to look up who he was, as the name didn’t ring any bells of recognition.  Henri died in 1929, and he was known as the founder of the Ashcan School, whose followers felt it important to represent real life, real as mud, to portray the gritty realism of human life, and forgo the academic painting, spurning the art of mere surface.

Henri was a teacher, and felt that art should vitally communicate, and he was one of the first to bring the French painters to the attention and study of American painters. He taught at the Art Students League of New York, and was a mentor to women artists.

But you can read his biography online; this is about his words. The book is a compilation of his teachings, and his philosophy about art and life. It isn’t a book you’ll sit down and read cover to cover, it is one you will open and find a sentence or a paragraph that resonates. It reminds you that art is about communicating. What story does your painting tell? What are trying to get people to see in your work?

Letter to the Class: 1915

“An interest in the subject, something you want to say definitely about the subject, this is the first condition of a portrait. The processes of painting spring from this interest, this definite thing to be said. Completion does not depend on material representation. The work is done when this special thing has been said.”

The Brush Stroke:

“Strokes carry a message whether you will it or not. The stroke is just like the artist that makes it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of his spirit and all the littlenesses are in it.”


“Keep your old work. You did it. There are virtues and there are faults in it for you to study. You can learn more from yourself than you can from anyone else.”

“Don’t follow the critics too much. Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy. It is a very personal affair and is necessary to each individual.”

“Furniture and clothes are the escape of the bad artist.” “Be interested in the containing power of the wall.” “There are many colors, and they are all moving, moving.”

“The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.”

Go surprise yourself.