Robert Henri

A Sense of Things by Jeannine Cook

The Telfair Museum in Savannah  is currently showing a vibrant collection of Robert Henri's portraits done in Spain, Spanish Sojourns: Robert Henri and the Spirit of Spain.  Henri was an important American artist in the early 20th century realist Ashcan Movement.  He excelled at portraiture, was a noted teacher and left an extensive, wide-ranging body of work.

Etching of Robert Henri by Ashcan artist John Sloan 1902

Etching of Robert Henri by Ashcan artist John Sloan 1902

The Telfair exhibition captures the flash, bravado and complexity of Spanish culture, as Henri experienced it during his seven visits there between 1900 and 1926.  His often full length portraits of dancers, gypsies, bullfighters and peasants convey a bold sense of each sitter's individuality, a sense of that person at that moment in time.

The Spanish Gypsy , 1912, Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929) (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Spanish Gypsy, 1912, Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929) (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Robert Henri himself remarked, "Drawing is not following a line on the model; it is drawing your sense of the thing." His drawings are often succinct, but they do convey that sense of what he saw and experienced. His paintings capture the same feeling, as he clearly drew with his paintbrush as well as with other media.  There is a fascinating and extensive collection of Henri's paintings and a few drawings at Poul Webb's blog, Art & Artists, and as you scroll through the images, each portrait is indeed clearly of an individual,  However, as always, I tend to gravitate to the drawings and landscapes, rather than the portraiture.  They often seem more powerfully to capture Henri's own dictum about the "sense of the thing".

Robert Henri, Pencil Drawing of a Small Child

Robert Henri, Pencil Drawing of a Small Child

Robert Henri, Images of Figures Sitting at an Outdoor Café, graphite on paper

Robert Henri, Images of Figures Sitting at an Outdoor Café, graphite on paper

Robert Henri, Nude Model with Blue and Red Skirt, watercolour, (Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Robert Henri, Nude Model with Blue and Red Skirt, watercolour, (Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Robert Henri, 1906 Procession in Spain, oil on canvas, Private collection

Robert Henri, 1906 Procession in Spain, oil on canvas, Private collection

Robert Henri, 1910, Morning Reflection, oil on canvas, Private collection

Robert Henri, 1910, Morning Reflection, oil on canvas, Private collection

Robert Henri, 1913, Irish Landscape, oil on canvas, Private collecton

Robert Henri, 1913, Irish Landscape, oil on canvas, Private collecton

Robert Henri, 1913, West Coast of Ireland, oil on canvas (Image courtesy of Everson Museum of Art - Syracuse, NY)

Robert Henri, 1913, West Coast of Ireland, oil on canvas (Image courtesy of Everson Museum of Art - Syracuse, NY)

Yet, despite all the serious drawing and painting he did, one of the delicious comments that Henri left is this drawing.

Robert Henri, 1910-12, For Art's Sake, pen & ink on paper

Robert Henri, 1910-12, For Art's Sake, pen & ink on paper

He certainly caught the sense of things!

Visual Communication by Jeannine Cook

As I yield to the siren calls of spring bursting forth in the garden, I find myself thinking about how plants communicate their needs. They grow lustily if they like where they are and have all their needs met. If they are in the wrong place in terms of light or moisture, the gardener soon knows that they are not happy - leaves yellow or droop - or worse! The same visual communications often leave me laughing when you watch a cat or do tell you, the "subservient" human, what they want, or don't want.

In the same way, visual communication in art is vital. Every artist realises, sooner or later, that it is not just enough to be able to execute technically perfect paintings, drawings or other works. Pretty pictures are ten a penny in the world. But, just as in the advertising world, visual images need to carry weight and impact. In advertising, the messages are deliberate, planned and directed at certain audiences.

Usually in art, the situation is more diffuse. For a start, the communications are dependent on the times in which the artist lives. In early Christian times, for instance, there was an extensive vocabulary of symbols used to convey specific messages. In just one arbitrary example, take an anchor. It could symbolise hope in Jesus Christ, and represent sanctuary and commitment. It could convey safe arrival of a ship to harbour and thus mean faithfulness, shelter and hope. It also symbolised St. Clement, the poor unfortunate martyred 4th Bishop of Rome who was tossed into the sea with an anchor around his neck, one hundred years after Christ's death. (My thanks to the History of Painting website for this information.)

By extension, the anchor was a sign used for the hidden Christian burial chambers, the Catacombs in Rome, possibly because Hebrews 6 19-20 says, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure." It was frequently used in conjunction with fishes, an obvious reference to Jesus telling Peter he would make them "fishers of men".

Anchor, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Anchor, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Two fish and anchor in the catacomb of Domitilla

Two fish and anchor in the catacomb of Domitilla

This image, courtesy of Heather, a moderator on art subjects in Good Reads is found in the St. Domitillia catacomb in Rome, the epitaph for one Antonia.  Sts. Domitillia, Priscilla, Calixtus and Coemetarium majus catacomb cemeteries are full of images of anchors.

Christian Roman epitaph of Atimetus from the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, Rome. Inscription flanked by Christian symbols, an anchor and a fish.

Christian Roman epitaph of Atimetus from the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, Rome. Inscription flanked by Christian symbols, an anchor and a fish.

Again, fishes and anchors are simple, powerful visual communications.

As the Renaissance artists developed an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary of symbols for their visual communication, their public understood the messages. Today, we might need to learn the interpretations of those works of art to understand fully what the artists were communicating.

One of the most wondrous examples of that time is Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel

The whole work is a visual metaphor for mankind's need - and desire - for a covenant with God. Michelangelo uses images and symbols from the Book of Genesis as the main vehicles to convey man's need for salvation; every part of the work is as eloquent to us today as it was to the contemporary viewers. However, his contemporaries would probably have understood nuances more readily than many viewers of the ceiling do today.

Ssistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

Ssistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

Each era has developed a specific set of symbols to communicate messages visually, but in today's world, the vocabulary is more diffuse, in that we all have different optics on things, our belief systems are more diverse and the world is a much more universal and complex place. For an artist, it becomes perhaps a much more personal affair: what to communicate as a human being, tapping - hopefully - into universal values and beliefs that can resonate with others.

As Robert Henri observed, "Art cannot be separated from life. We value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life's experience."  

As artists, we need to live life in awareness and thoughtfulness. Ultimately, I believe, we need to have enough self-confidence and honesty to try to draw on our own souls and innermost core, to understand who we are and what we are trying to do and say. Only then can we develop a clear voice that is our way to communicate visually to others. Some people may hear that voice, others won't. That is the beauty of our diversity. But at least, an artist who dares to reveal his or her life experiences in artwork will be a unique person, conveying images that ring true. That is quite an ambitious goal.

Dutch Utopia tour at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Today's visit to the Telfair Museum's exhibition, Dutch Utopia: American Artists in Holland, 1880-1914, was a fascinating delight for a huge group of art lovers from Savannah and beyond. Curator Holly McCullough led everyone through the genesis, choices, history and social background of an exhibition she had worked on for long years.

Holland became a magnet for many American artists, men and women, who chose to work, sometimes in colonies, in many small towns throughout the country. They created paintings that reflected Holland's silvery light, seascapes and dunes. Other work depicted Dutch society, selectively and with an emphasis on older, traditional mores. People were portrayed as sober, hardworking, church-going, mostly garbed in costumes that were chosen more for their pictorial value than any accuracy of local costume. Gari Melchers, one of the main artists represented in the exhibition, with dramatic paintings large and small, had close ties to the Telfair as he was Fine Arts Advisor to the Museum early in the 20th century. His choice of art to be acquired, during his tenure at the Museum, led to holdings of these American artists working in Holland, such as Walter MacEwen and George Hitchcock. Other artists represented in the exhibition range from Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman and John Singer Sargent to women like Elizabeth Nourse and Anna Stanley. They all spent time in one or more of the small towns and villages favoured by the artists for their timeless beauties.

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

The 17th century influences show in much of the art, from Franz Hals to Rembrandt or Vermeer, and the silvery light is a hallmark of many of the paintings. I delighted in some of the depictures of the leaded glass windows, always with spindly pot plants reaching for the light but managing to add touches of background colour to interior scenes. Other aspects of the paintings dwell on the essence of Holland - windmills, tulips, orderly streets and fishing boat scenes. It was thus not surprising that a number of these paintings had been in European public and private collections from the time they were produced, although many others had been purchased by the new collecting public in this country. The Telfair had assembled this show from public and private collections and many had not been exhibited in public for long years.

If you miss this exhibition in Savannah, you can catch it at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and finally at the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands. Thanks to Holly McCullough and her team, this exhibition is an unusual, fascinating and often very lovely exhibition well worth visiting.

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.