ROBERT HENRI has been known more for his role as teacher and founding father of "The Eight" than for his painting. But the Corcoran's retrospective of his work shows his mastery of light and shadow and his wide field of vision.
In February 1908, eight painters opened an independent show at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. Among them were Henri (pronounced "Hen-rye") and four other Philadelphia artists -- William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, who started as illustrators for newspapers before the advent of any real news photography. Three of their friends joined them, making eight: Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson and Arthur B. Davies. Their exhibition was an effort to liberate the art establishment, which had been slighting some of thm in its tradition-locked exhibitions.
"Robert Henri: Painter," which opens Saturday, is a show of influences. Not by his art, but by his encouragement of independence, Henri taught such students as George Bellows, Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper. A selection of paintings by his students and colleagues is displayed in "Henri's Circle," in adjoining galleries at the Corcoran.
As for what influenced this particular eighth of The Eight, overwhelmingly it was Manet. This can be seen in Henri's chiaroscuro, or treatment of light and shadow, as well as his choice of subject matter. Henri painted solitary figures surrounded by deep receding shadows. He deprived them of environment: no perfume bottles in a dressing room for the "Spanish Dancer," no rose by the feet of "El Matador," no male admirers ogling "Salome." In Henri's portrait of fellow artist Sloan, the subject's somber black suit becomes lost in gray background, his face stark.
In later years, Henri painted gypsies, Indians and Irish children, with an almost anthropological intent. "The people I like to paint," he said, "are 'my people,' whoever they may be . . . through whom the dignity of life is manifest."
Although he was born Robert Henry Cozad, Henri assumed a new identity along with the rest of his family when his father was wanted for murder. (Although it was apparently justifiable homicide, the family took no chances, absconding from Denver to Atlantic City.) Henri, a young man of 18 who didn't know French, pronounced his new name "Hen-rye." It was at about the same time that he decided to paint.
Henri is recognized as a portrait painter, but in this show of a hundred of his paintings there are some very appealing landscapes: dark, Whistlerian moments where the subject is lost in a foggy wash; dazzlingly bright beach scenes through the eyes of an Impressionist; and something in between, a shaft of light across a woman at a fireplace, or an evening enlivened by snow.
His energetic, broad strokes were his quick response to a scene. They limn the lay of the land, or a child's cheek, with equal fidelity. Henri followed his own advice to his students, which was, "Work with great speed . . . Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in delaying."
ROBERT HENRI: PAINTER (1865-1929) -- Opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, through June 16.