The Art Spirit

Originally published in 1923, this classic resource for painters is a true gem.

Henri was an influential and inspiring American art teacher and painter in the early 20th century until his death in 1929. He was one of the first people to spread in a broad way the news of the great French painters and initially the Impressionists to America. He later sought to create a new realism in art and inspired great artists like George Bellows, Edward Hopper and the Ashcan school. Bellows himself once wrote about this particular book. “I would give anything to have come by this book years ago” he said. “It is in my opinion comparable only to the notes of Leonardo.” A big call indeed from the big-hitting painter.

In this book you will find Henri’s essential beliefs and theories on art. It’s more from the technical side of advice and critical comments for the younger art student.

Some of the gems and advice in this book came directly from his own experience of painting and he always went against the grain of popular belief or was quite candid in his approach to imparting his wisdom. Henri writes: “All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use. Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else. Originality cannot be preconceived, and any effort to coddle it is to preconceive it, and thereby destroy it… The best advice I have ever given to students who have studied under me has been just this: ‘Educate yourself, do not let me educate you; use me, do not be used by me’.”

Valuable, technical anecdotes on painting and intuitive art information like this are getting lost and skill-based technique which adds to the quality of contemporary art is still an important factor to produce convincing work. Even in China, which currently seems to be leading the way in its ambition and skill-based contemporary art, you will find thousands of students at the Central Academy of Fine Art (Beijing or Shanghai) eagerly being taught the basics of which Henri was spruiking 100 years ago.

It seems a shame that in the West the notion of the ‘idea’ as capital has been effortlessly assimilated into young art students’ minds – though it’s not everything.

Henri ended up teaching in New York and his teachings affected a generation of artists. It may have been an interesting proposition had someone like New York artist Jeff Koon’s picked up this book during their early student days?

Author: Robert Henri
Publisher: Westview Press
RRP: from $25