Biography of an artist -- by an artist

Monday Book Review

April 13, 1992|By John Goodspeed

ROBERT HENRI: HIS LIFE AND ART. By Bennard B. Perlman. Dover Publications. 176 pages. Illustrated. Paperback, $14.95. ROBERT Henri -- born in 1865 in Cincinnati, died in 1929 in New York -- is still considered one of the best U.S. painters, a great teacher and the man who initiated and organized the display of "modern" art that shoved aside "conservative" academic art in America.

But as this fine biography by the Baltimore artist and scholar, Bennard Perlman, notes -- but doesn't emphasize -- Henri himself was considered conservative soon after his revolution began, and he became part of the artistic establishment for the last 15 years of his life.

Henri was one of "The Eight" artists who painted everyday scenes and people instead of classical fables and who horrified academic esthetes with a famous exhibit in New York in 1903. The others, many still considered immortal, were John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, Ernest Lawson, Arthur Davies, Everett Shinn and Maurice Prendergast -- all subject of an earlier book by Perlman, "Painters of the Ashcan School."

But their leader, Henri -- even in the opinion of some of them, his own students -- was more of a bypassed bystander at the even more famous New York Armory show of 1913 that starred cubists and other "modern" painters from Europe, notably Marcel Duchamps and his "Nude Descending a Staircase." Henri didn't like the work of Henri Matisse and had no comment on the work of Vincent Van Gogh. He was already out of fashion among the avant.

As a student in France, he had been somewhat impressed by the Impressionists and Paul Cezanne, but Henri eventually developed a rather --ing style that employed bold brush strokes and has been called "free American naturalism" but was mainly influenced by such earlier European masters as Frans Hals, Diego Velazquez and Edouard Manet. Twenty-one Henri paintings are well reproduced in color in this biography, 58 more in black-and-white, and they show that -- out-of-date or not -- he was a genius.

Henri probably wasn't of French descent. His real surname was not "Henri," and he insisted it should be pronounced "Hen-rye," although many people thought it was "Ahn-REE." His real name was Robert Henry Cozad, descendant of one of the early Dutch settlers in New York. His father was a riverboat gambler and real estate promoter who at one time was fugitive from a murder charge and who, in a bizarre move, changed his name to Richard Henry Lee (same as that of the Revolutionary War hero) and kept it the rest of his life -- even though the murder charge was dropped.

Bennard Perlman had access to the family papers and has researched Henri's life and career with a thoroughness and detail that may be overzealous in places. But perhaps because Perlman himself is a painter, his book gets closer to Henri, further into his heart and mind and under his skin than scholarly biographies of artists usually manage. He shows us how exciting it must have been to be a talented painter in Philadelphia and New York at the turn of the century.

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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