The book that taught me to be an artist: ‘The Art Spirit’ by Robert Henri

I once took a design class as a college freshman—which seems like an age ago—that’s been turning up in my mind lately.  The class focused on training our eyes to see the composition of the surrounding world so that we could reproduce meaningful visual compositions ourselves.  As with a lot of memories of my undergraduate classes, I tend to feel a tinge of regret when I look back and recognize how little I allowed some of these classes to influence me.  I probably just wasn’t prepared for them to affect me deeply, but that doesn’t change the fact that those opportunities in those particular moments in time are now gone.  I think all teachers mourn for the long lost classes they didn’t fully appreciate as students.

But there’s a vestige of this design class that has stuck with me.  Our only assigned text was Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit (originally published in 1923), a collection of writings, letters, and sayings on art (arranged a bit like a commonplace book, actually) by the early twentieth-century painter, Robert Henri.  Although his paintings are perhaps not as well known as other great artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, or Bonnard, his writings about art are absolutely unmatchable.  (Henri was most well known for portraits—you can do a quick Google image search to get a sense of how much his portraits value capturing individuality.)

BJP_3380What’s odd is that I don’t remember discussing the book at all in class—we spent most of our class time analyzing images, creating our own compositions, and getting feedback from the rest of the class.  I do (vaguely) remember being told on the first day by the professor, “This is the most important book there is on what it means to be an artist.  You will read this book.”  But there weren’t any assignments about it, no quizzes or essays, nothing to keep us accountable for reading it.  Now that I’m a teacher, I wonder if that was the point: the students who would let themselves be influenced by the book would find it in time, even, I suppose, long after the class was done.

He was right, though: I did read this book.  And it taught me how to be an artist.

For instance, the opening lines of Henri’s little book don’t waste any time in explaining what “art” truly is: “Art when really understood is the province of every human being.  It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well.  It is not an outside, extra thing.”  In other words, to be an artist is to appreciate the value of doing your work well (whatever that work may be).  Of course, he complicates his vision of the artistic life as the book moves along, but this initial definition guides the rest of his musings on art.

One of my favorite observations he makes about painting has refreshed my own approach to academic writing, something that can feel very, very far from the process of painting:

To start with a deep impression, the best, the most interesting, the deepest you can have of the model; to preserve this vision throughout the work; to see nothing else; to admit of no digression from it; choosing only from the model the signs of it; will lead to an organic work.  Every element in the picture will be constructive, constructive of an idea, expressive of an emotion.  Every factor in the painting will have beauty because in its place in the organization it is doing its living part.  It will be living line, living form, living color. (Henri 20-21)

When I read this passage, I feel convicted that any literature article I sit down to write has to begin with that “deep impression.”  If it starts with anything else, then my motives for writing the piece are likely out of place.  As I move through the writing process, loyalty to that deep impression—the “most interesting” impression, “the deepest you can have”—keeps the writing focused on the larger goal of sharing the impression truthfully with another.

Ultimately, for Henri, the “art spirit” is a force that reorients humankind to acknowledge and appreciate how the arts connect us with something bigger than ourselves:

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual—become clairvoyant.  We reach then into reality.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.

It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.  (Henri 44-45)

* * *

Next spring, I’m teaching a class on “Writing and Creativity,” and The Art Spirit keeps creeping back into my mind whenever I daydream about how I’ll organize the course.  How can I help those students ask the right questions about what it means to live the creative life?  And, even though most of them will have signed up for this themed course by choice, how much will they already believe in the value of calling oneself an artist?

Regardless of how things shape up with this class I’m planning (maybe I should follow my old professor’s lead and assign Henri as a textbook!),  re-reading The Art Spirit this summer feels like a reunion with an old friend whom I used to take for granted, but who now commands all my attention.

I love how the summer months encourage those kinds of sweet reunions.


Thanks to my husband for taking some pictures of Henri’s little book!