New York

Robert Henri

New York Cultural Center

The Robert Henri show at the New York Cultural Center (formerly the Gallery of Modern Art) was a mistake. I doubt that Henri is a very useful painter to study at the present time, whatever one’s persuasion may be, and as a result of this show I have even begun to doubt that he is very good—certainly he does not benefit from being seen in such large quantity, and the show was much too big. Finally, the selection was in far too many instances too odd; my opinion is that if you can’t get the works you need to do a show properly it is better not to do it at all.

Surely the early work is the best, as well as the best-represented here, and it is more eclectic than is often thought. Manet is by far the predominant influence, of course, and where other creditors are found (Hals, Velazquez) they are filtered through the medium of Manet, who looked to the same predecessors. But there are other influences or—what might be a more interesting way of viewing the question—Henri may have been especially sensitive to the many diverse elements that Manet’s style incorporates without really assimilating. Even some of the cityscapes (e.g., Café du Dôme, 1892) look more to Pissarro or to painters who followed him, almost contemporaneously with Henri. Paintings like Seated Girl by the Sea (1893) rely heavily on Degas and Whistler and on Manet’s study of them, and this particular painting is very close to Potthast—what does this say about the quality of Henri’s work? Then there is a kind of painting (In the Garden of the Luxembourg, 1898, or Rolling Sea, 1903) which we have seen quite recently in such artists as Richard Diebenkorn or Paul Wonner. The similarity is a very clear indication of what Henri’s approach consists of, and another indication is provided by the apparent traces of the combined influence of later Inness and of Barbizon, as in Henri’s views of the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania—idealizing, generalizing painting in its treatment of perception and form, sentimentalizing painting in its approach to the expression of feeling. I think, in other words, that one must not make too much of Henri’s interest in a certain kind of subject—unpretentious, unfashionable, proletarian: his responses are to painting, not to things, and when he paints it is previous painting he is thinking of. Inevitably this leads to a large measure of abstraction. In Henri’s approach, as in that of so many other artists of his time and of most representational artists subsequently, painting replaced objects and references to pictorial styles took the place of perception. But if other painting becomes the raw materlal for Henri’s paintings, these artistic models must be generalized, just as perceptions must be if they are to be used as the starting point for a coherent work of art.

The early years of this century were the critical ones in the development of Henri’s style—the paintings of the Wyoming Valley, Snow in Central Park, East River, Cumulus Clouds or Storm Tide (1902–03)—and one sees that the formal element and the handling of the paint become the real content of the work. But along with this generalizing goes a significant change in the emphasis of Henri’s subject matter—portraits replace city scenes as the principal vehicle of his technique. This change is accentuated by the selection of paintings in the show, and it is at this point that the show becomes tedious and bad—there certainly ought to have been more later paintings on other themes. It may be that Henri chose to work in portraiture in an attempt to gain a greater measure of individuation—theoretically a portrait would seem to require that. But in the context in which they were painted it is hard to see how Henri’s portraits could be anything but conventional, that is, how their frame of reference could be anything but painting, as distinguished from character and its appearance. The reason for this is that, for Henri, portraiture could only mean Manet . . . plus Treubner, which is to say, more of the same. Actually, Henri’s portraits are no more exercises in brushwork than, say, Sargent’s, but Henri’s own social preferences and the social class of his sitters effectively kept the artist’s back turned to the kind of acid depiction of character one often finds in aristocratic portraiture at that time.

One does find, in Henri’s later work, very clear echoes of Sargent, but mostly it is of Sargent’s landscape style (Strollers’ Rest, Sketches in the Woods, both of 1918); and where it is of figures (Young Girl, 1919), the work has Sargent’s manner without Sargent’s substance when he has substance. Where the design is strong, the work is successful (The Failure of Sylvester, 1914), but even here the interest is in the design, not the character; and Betalo Nue of 1918 shows how bad the work can get in the absence of formal interest, since character had never been there at all. An important question, and one I cannot answer, is why Henri’s social ideals were of no avail in checking his drift into abstraction; but there is hardly a trace of them in Henri’s later work, and in this respect Henri is very much like Sloan.

Jerrold Lanes