Robert Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 24, 1865, the son of a professional gambler and businessman. In 1879 he accompanied his family to Denver, Colorado. When his father was indicted for manslaughter two years later the Cozads fled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and changed their name. In 1886 Henri enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
, where he studied under Thomas Anshutz, Thomas Hovenden, and James B. Kelly. In 1888 he went to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. During the summers he painted in Brittany, Barbizon, and visited Italy prior to being admitted to the Ecole des Beux-Arts in 1891. He returned to Philadelphia late that year, and in 1892 resumed studying at the academy. That year he initiated his long and influential career as an art teacher at the School of Design for Women, where he taught until 1895. During this period he met the young newspaper illustrators who would later achieve fame as members of the Eight, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. He made regular trips to Paris where he was particularly influenced by Edouard Manet, Franz Hals, and Diego Velázquez. In 1898, the year of his marriage to Linda Craige, one of his paintings was purchased for the Musée Nationale du Luxembourg.
In 1900 Henri settled in New York and taught at the New York School of Art (formerly the Chase School) until 1908. He gradually began to reject the genteel tradition of academic painting and impressionism, and turned his attention to unconventional urban realist subjects executed in a bold, painterly style. In 1906 he was elected to the National Academy of Design
, and taught in Spain that summer. When the academy refused to exhibit works by Henri’s circle in its 1907 annual show, he resolved to organize an independent exhibition. The result was the famous show of the Eight that was held at Macbeth Gallery in February, 1908. That year he married his second wife, the illustrator Marjorie Organ. In 1910 he organized the first “Exhibition of Independent Artists,” between 1911 and 1919 he arranged jury-free exhibitions at the MacDowell Club, and in 1913 he helped the Association of American Painters and Sculptors organize the Armory Show, after which he made the first of a number of trips to Achill Island, Ireland. Henri’s influence began to wane after the ascent of European modernism, although he continued to win numerous awards. He taught at the Art Students League from 1915 until a year before his death from cancer on July 12, 1929.
Although Henri was an important portraitist and figure painter who was admired for his straightforward, vital likenesses of unusual sitters, he is best remembered today as the influential, progressive, and flamboyant founder of the so-called Ashcan School. He was noted for his democratic approach to portraiture, and chose sitters from all racial groups and walks of life. In 1909 he was strongly influenced by the color theories of Hardesty Maratta, and his palette brightened considerably. Henri was a tremendously influential teacher, and his ideas on art were collected by former pupil Margery Ryerson and published as The Art Spirit (Philadelphia, 1923).
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