Robert Henri and His Circle
About 1905, Robert Henri and his followers emerged as leaders in a new movement in American art. Most still in their twenties, these young artists made their reputations as recorders of contemporary life. Rebelling against the popular “art for art’s sake” aesthetic that favored the wealthy and the beautiful as subjects, these Realists believed strongly that art ought to reflect “life in the raw” and that beauty could be found even in the most mundane activities and the poorest of neighborhoods. As new residents of New York, they were fascinated by crowded, hectic city life and recorded its many small and spectacular moments—people sitting on park benches, walking by the river, or riding the ferry; children playing in the street; and scenes of outdoor markets, vaudeville performances, boxing matches, breadlines, dock strikes, and trolley accidents.
Many from the group enjoyed successful careers as commercial illustrators, cartoonists, and newspaper sketch reporters. It was Henri, trained in Philadelphia and at Paris art schools, who urged them to think of art as a calling rather than just a job and to take up painting as a serious profession. They came to view art as a noble activity, a way to communicate something serious and great about life and humanity, and believed that art should reflect life, just as life must inform the making of art.
Never a formal artists’ group, but more accurately a loosely associated group of friends, the artists have been known by many different names. The art critic John Cournos called them the New York Realists; others knew them as the Henri circle, the Depressionists, the Revolutionary Black Gang, or the Ashcan School. Various members of the group occasionally exhibited together, but their only full collaboration was the famous exhibition of works by “The Eight,” held at Macbeth Galleries in 1908. For more works by the Henri circle, see the painting screen 16, “Urban Realism: The Eight and the Ashcan School,” here in the Visible Storage gallery.
Realist Works on Paper
Although the artists of the Henri circle are best known for their paintings, they created a rich body of works on paper—the focus of this small exhibition. A number of them were skilled draftsmen who started their careers as newspaper quick-sketch artists and produced prints and drawings that reveal a trained eye for the details of the daily urban scene.
Because these artists specialized in documenting and interpreting contemporary life, their most vivid and characteristic works are drawings and sketches that directly record their personal observations of the world around them. Sometimes these sketches served as visual notes for larger, more finished paintings or prints, but just as often, they were drawn purely for the sake of capturing the telling gestures, poses, characters, and other details of New York life.
A number of works shown here are illustrations for books or magazines. In addition to their work as painters, George Bellows, William Glackens, George Luks, Jerome Myers, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan illustrated many short stories, nonfiction articles, and novels ranging from stories set on the Lower East Side to tales of the New York rich to racy French novels by Paul de Kock. Luks drew hilarious tenement scenes for his Sunday comics Hogan’s Alley and The Yellow Kid. Ultimately, all these freelance jobs would inform the artists’ approach to city life in their paintings.
Though their work was very much connected to contemporary life, the Realists were also highly influenced by the great art of the past. Inspired by the graphic works of Rembrandt, Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Albrecht Du?rer, some artists in the group took up the media of etching and lithography. Sloan, Myers, and Bellows were among the first artists to revive the art of fine printmaking in the United States. Sloan became a master craftsman and was, in his etchings, a biting social critic. Myers specialized in etching, working in black and white as well as color. Having already made a name for himself as a painter, Bellows took up lithography in 1916. His prints were quite popular, often judged by critics to be his best works.
November 8, 2005
Urban Views: Realist Prints and Drawings by Robert Henri and His Circle, an exhibition of nineteen works on paper, will open on January 13, 2006. On view through the early spring, it is the latest presentation in a planned series of four yearly small exhibitions of rarely seen, selected works on paper from the permanent collection to be held in the Luce Visible Storage ? Study Center of the Luce Center for American art.
Sometimes popularly known as the Ashcan School, Henri and the the artists of the circle were leaders of a new movement in early twentieth-century American art. Departing from an aesthetic that focused on the wealthy and beautiful as subjects, these artists instead document some of the more mundane activities of everyday city life. The exhibition focuses on the graphic work of Henri and his followers, most of whom were successful commercial illustrators, cartoonists, and newspaper sketch artists. Three of the works included are illustrations for books or magazines. Despite their beginnings as commercial artists, they were persuaded, under Henri’s influence, to pursue art more seriously as a calling.
Among the prints and drawings on view is a George Bellows lithograph that takes a comic look at a group of ungainly businessmen trying to improve their physiques at a YMCA; an unusual, unfinished watercolor by Maurice Prendergast of a seaside scene; a John Sloan etching from memory of a quiet evening spent together with Robert Henri and their wives; and an ink sketch by Henri of a party scene.
Urban Views has been organized by Margaret Stenz, Ph.D., Andrew W. Mellon Research Associate in the Department of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum.