Public Domain Day advent calendar #18: The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

“Art when really understood is the province of every human being.”

That’s the opening sentence of The Art Spirit, a book of articles, notes, and addresses by Robert Henri, an American painter and art teacher.   One of the key figures in the Ashcan School of art drawn from everyday life, Henri stressed the importance of art that did not limit itself to elite audiences or subjects, or imitate existing styles.  “The whole value of art,” he says in the book, “is in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him.”  Technique is important to effectively express what the artist sees, he says, noting that an artist may need to “invent technique that will especially fit his need” to make “the most precise statement”.  But the effectiveness of art, as Henri sees it, ultimately flows from the insight and perception of the artist, who looks beyond obvious surface features.  “A genius is one who can see,” he says.

Henri’s book has stayed in print in multiple editions since its initial 1923 publication.  His teaching has influenced generations of artists in a variety of fields, including fellow painters like Edward Hopper as well as filmmakers like David Lynch.   Maria Popova has a good summation of Henri’s philosophy in a 2013 post on her BrainPickings blog, “Beloved Painter and Philosopher Robert Henri on How Art Binds Us Together”.

The Art Spirit was edited by Margery Ryerson, who had been a student of Henri’s.  (One section in the book is entirely made up of notes she took in Henri’s classes.)  Ryerson went on to be an influential artist and teacher in her own right, and you can see many of her paintings and a tribute catalog online.  One can see in her career the principle that Henri stated, and that Popova restates in her post, of creativity building on the work of past creators: “All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole… He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.”

In 14 days, the book that Henri and Ryerson created will be given to the public domain in the US.  I hope that artists of all kinds will be able to take things of value from it, to help them in turn give their own creations to the world.


2019 update: Link to full text of The Art Spirit, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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