The Art Spirit


By Robert Henri

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A classic work of advice, criticism, and inspiration for aspiring artists and lovers of art

“Art when really understood is the province of every human being.” So begins The Art Spirit, the collected words, teachings, and wisdom of innovative artist and beloved teacher Robert Henri. Henri, who painted in the Realist style and was a founding member of the Ashcan School, was known for his belief in interactive nature of creativity and inspiration, and the enduring power of art. Since its first publication in 1923, The Art Spirit, has been a source of inspiration for artists and creatives from David Lynch to George Bellows. Filled with valuable technical advice as well as wisdom about the place of art and the artist in American society, this classic work continues to be a must-read for anyone interested in the power of creation and the beauty of art.


Bibliographical Note

This Dover edition, first published in 2019, is an unabridged republication of the work originally published by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and New York, in 1923.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Henri, Robert, 1865-1929, author. | Ryerson, Margery, editor.

Title: The art spirit / Robert Henri ; compiled by Margery A. Ryerson.

Description: Mineola, New York : Dover Publications, Inc., 2019. | "This Dover edition, first published in 2019, is an unabridged republication of the work originally offered by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and New York, in 1923."

Identifiers: LCCN 2018011855| ISBN 9780486826738 | ISBN 0486826732

Subjects: LCSH: Art.

Classification: LCC N7445.2 .H46 2019 | DDC 700—dc23

LC record available at

Manufactured in the United States by LSC Communications

82673201 2019

Foreword by the Author

MANY students have asked for this book, and that is the reason the fragments which are its composition have been brought together. No effort has been made toward the form of a regular book. In fact the opinions are presented more as paintings are hung on the wall, to be looked at at will and taken as rough sketches for what they are worth. If they have a suggestive value and stimulate to independent thought they will attain the object of their presentation. There are many repeats throughout the work, many times the same subject is taken up and viewed from a different angle or seen in relation to other matters. At the end there is a complete index which will make up for the absence of chapters and sections and the general scarcity of headings. There is no idea that anyone should agree with any of the comments or that anyone should follow the advice given. If they irritate to activity in a quite different direction it will be just as well. The subject is beauty—or happiness, and man's approach to it is various.

R. H.

June, 1923

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.


¶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.

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.

The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.

Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums. Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making. Art tends towards balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living—very good things for anyone to be interested in.

¶THE work of the art student is no light matter. Few have the courage and stamina to see it through. You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. We like sympathy and we like to be in company. It is easier than going it alone. But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this. If you succeed somewhat you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life.

Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them.

We are not here to do what has already been done.

I have little interest in teaching you what I know. I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know. In my office toward you I am simply trying to improve my own environment.

Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.

¶AN ART student must be a master from the beginning; that is, he must be master of such as he has. By being now master of such as he has there is promise that he will be master in the future.

A work of art which inspires us comes from no quibbling or uncertain man. It is the manifest of a very positive nature in great enjoyment, and at the very moment the work was done.

It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work. The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself.

For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself. He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.

He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.

¶THE sketch hunter has delightful days of drifting about among people, in and out of the city, going anywhere, everywhere, stopping as long as he likes—no need to reach any point, moving in any direction following the call of interests. He moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook, a box of oils with a few small panels, the fit of his pocket, or on his drawing pad. Like any hunter he hits or misses. He is looking for what he loves, he tries to capture it. It's found anywhere, everywhere. Those who are not hunters do not see these things. The hunter is learning to see and to understand—to enjoy.

There are memories of days of this sort, of wonderful driftings in and out of the crowd, of seeing and thinking. Where are the sketches that were made? Some of them are in dusty piles, some turned out to be so good they got frames, some became motives for big pictures, which were either better or worse than the sketches, but they, or rather the states of being and understandings we had at the time of doing them all, are sifting through and leaving their impress on our whole work and life.

¶DONT worry about the rejections. Everybody that's good has gone through it. Don't let it matter if your works are not "accepted" at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not for the jury. I had many years of rejections.

Do some great work, Son! Don't try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscape looks to you—your pleasure in the thing. Wit.

There are lots of people who can make sweet colors, nice tones, nice shapes of landscape, all done in nice broad and intelligent-looking brushwork.

Courbet showed in every work what a man he was, what a head and heart he had.

Every student should put down in some form or other his findings. All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole. No man can be final, but he can record his progress, and whatever he records is so much done in the thrashing out of the whole thing. What he leaves is so much for others to use as stones to step on or stones to avoid.

The student is not an isolated force. He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.

¶THROUGH art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.

The Brotherhood is powerful. It has many members. They are of all places and of all times. The members do not die. One is member to the degree that he can be member, no more, no less. And that part of him that is of the Brotherhood does not die.

The work of the Brotherhood does not deal with surface events. Institutions on the world surface can rise and become powerful and they can destroy each other. Statesmen can put patch upon patch to make things continue to stand still. No matter what may happen on the surface the Brotherhood goes steadily on. It is the evolution of man. Let the surface destroy itself, the Brotherhood will start it again. For in all cases, no matter how strong the surface institutions become, no matter what laws may be laid down, what patches may be made, all change that is real is due to the Brotherhood.

¶IF THE artist is alive in you, you may meet Greco nearer than many people, also Plato, Shakespeare, the Greeks.

In certain books—some way in the first few paragraphs you know that you have met a brother.

You pass people on the street, some are for you, some are not.

Here is a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. I enter this sketch and I see him at work and in trouble and I meet him there.

Letter to the Class, Art Students League, 1915:

¶AN INTEREST in the subject; something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a portrait. The processes of painting spring from this interest, this definite thing to be said. Completion does not depend on material representation. The work is done when that special thing has been said. The artist starts with an opinion, he organizes the materials, from which and with which he draws, to the expression of that opinion. Every material he employs has become significant of his emotion. The things have no longer their dead meaning but have become living parts of a coördination. A prejudice has existed for the things useful for the expression of this special idea, only things essential to this idea have been used. Nature is there before you. A particular line has been taken through nature. A special and particular vision is making itself clear. The lace on the lady's sleeve is no longer lace, it is part of her, and in the picture stands as a symbol of her refinement and her delicacy. The color in her cheek is no longer a spot of red, but is the culminating note of an order which runs through every part of the canvas signifying her sensitiveness and her health.

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. Because of its adjustment, it is given its greatest power of expansion. It is only through a sense of the right relation of things that freedom can be obtained.

As different as ideas and emotions are, there can be no set rule laid down for the making of pictures, but for students found working in a certain line suggestions may be made. There is a certain common sense in procedure which may be basic for all, and there are processes safe to suggest, if only to be used as points of departure, to those who have not already developed a satisfying use of their materials.

It is on this ground that I offer you the following: With your model posing as he does in the same position every day of a week you have choice of differing modes of study, and it is up to you to decide well which will be the most profitable, which will carry you further. Some will work the entire week on the same canvas and others will find it an advantage to make an entirely new start every day, preserving as far as possible the canvases of the early days to compare with the work in hand, and making these comparisons, sitting in judgment on them and coming to decision as to what to do next. Some will find it advisable to start a canvas number one on the first day, and a canvas number two on the second, and alternating these two canvases for the rest of the week, they will in a sort of duel teach each other much. I myself have found it useful to work on two canvases, alternating them with every rest of the model. One does not sleep in this kind of work, there is an excitement in it that can improve the sometimes dying energies in a classroom in the later days of the week. Every mode has its virtues and its vices, but the student who is a student and attending to his own case will in the mode just described crowd into a week a lot of experience in commencing a work, and he will come to a very great knowledge of his understanding and his possible visions of the subject. The value of repeated studies of beginnings of a painting cannot be over-estimated. Those who cannot begin do not finish.

And for all who continue to work on the same canvas let me suggest that your struggle throughout the week should be to perfect the beginning of your painting. If you are thinking and seeing your own work and the work about you, you must observe how general is the failure in the progress of works. The fact is, finish cannot be separated from a perfect commencement.

Insist then, on the beauty of form and color to be obtained from the composition of the largest masses, the four or five large masses which cover your canvas. Let these above all things have fine shapes, have fine colors. Let them be as meaningful of your subject as they possibly can be. It is wonderful how much real finish can be obtained through them, how much of gesture and modeling can be obtained through their contours, what satisfactions can be obtained from their fine measures in area, color and value. Most students and most painters in fact rush over this; they are in a hurry to get on to other matters, minor matters.

In dealing with these four or five masses in portraiture, the mass of the face is the most important and should be considered as principal to the other masses, even though the other masses be more brilliant or striking in themselves. Also the mass of the head should be considered as principal to any feature of the head. The beauty of the larger mass is primary to and is essential to the lesser mass.

Paint over and over, scrape and re-commence in your effort to find out and establish the beauty of color and design possible in the larger masses. When you scrape, do it like a good mechanic. Paint thin over proper light surfaces, but paint either thin or thick to get your desired effect. Permit no hurrying on to the lesser masses before all has been done that is possible with the larger masses.

Determine to get in these larger masses all that is possible of completion, all the drawing, color, design, character, construction, effect. Remember that the greatest beauty can be expressed through these masses, that the distinction of the whole canvas depends on them.

When later you come to the painting of the features of the face, consider well the feature's part in relation to the idea you have to express. It will not be so much a question of painting that nose as it will be painting the expression of that nose. All the features are concerned in one expression which manifests the state of mind or the condition of the sitter.

No feature should be started until you have fully comprehended its character and have established in your mind the manner of its full accomplishment. To stop in the process of drawing the lines of a feature to inquire "what next" is surely to leave a record of disconnection.

No feature should be drawn except in its relation to the others. There is a dominating movement through all the features. There is sequence in their relationship. There is sequence in the leading lines of the features with the movements of the body. This spirit of related movement is very important in the drawing or painting of hair. Hair is beautiful in itself, this should not be forgotten, but it is the last position of importance it takes in the make-up of a portrait. The hair must draw the grace and dignity—perhaps the brains—of the head. The lights on the hair must be used to stress the construction, to vitalize, accentuate and continue movement. The outline of the hair over the face must be used as a principal agent for the drawing of the forms of the forehead and temples, and must at the same time partake of the general movement of the shoulders and of the whole body. The hair is to be used as a great drawing medium. It is to be rendered according to its nature, but it is not to be copied. Think well on this; it is very important.

The eyebrows are hair in the last instance. To a good draftsman they are primarily powerful evidences of the muscular actions of the forehead, which muscular actions are manifestations of the sitter's state of being. The muscles respond instantly to such obvious sensations as surprise, horror, pain, mirth, inquiry, etc., and the actions of the muscles are most defined in their effect on that strongly marked line of hair, the eyebrow. However subtle the emotion, the eyebrow by its definiteness marks the response in the muscular movement.

In certain heads, the eyebrow, while normal, still holds a very positive gesture. There are those, therefore, who carry in repose an expression of sadness, boredom, surprise, dignity, and some accentuate the force or direction in the action of looking. To a good draughtsman the eyebrow is a living thing. It develops a habit which it expresses in repose and it flashes intelligence of every changing emotion. It draws the shape of the lower forehead and temples—the squareness, curve and bulk. After all that, it is a series of small hairs growing out of the skin.

The eyebrow must not be drawn hesitatingly. It must be conceived as a whole; your conception, your brush, the quantity of paint in right fluidity must be all ready before you touch the canvas.

By the spring in the drawing of the eyelash the quick action of the eye may be suggested. The upper eyelid and lash generally cast a shadow scarcely observed yet very effective on the eyeball. The white of the eye is more often the same color as the flesh about it than the average painter is likely to think it to be. The pupil is larger in quiet light, becoming very small by contraction when looking into brilliant light. The highlight in the pupil is a matter of drawing although best done with one quick touch. Its direction, shape, edges, and its contrast in color and value to the pupil give shape, curve, brilliancy or mark the contrary. The right brush, the right paint, a perfect control of the hand are necessary for this. For some, a maul stick to steady is of great value here. (There is a time and place for all things, the difficulty is to use them only in their proper time and places.)

The highlight on the end of the nose is likewise a matter of important drawing, although generally executed in a simple quick touch. By its shape it defines the three angles of the end of the nose.

The lines and forms in the clothes should be used to draw the body in its sensitive relationship with the head. The wrinkles and forms of the clothes are building material not for tailoring in your hands but for established basic lines rising to the head. There is an orchestration throughout the whole canvas. Nothing is for itself, but each thing partaking of the other is living its greatest possibility, is surpassing itself with vitality and meaning and is part of the making of a great unity. So with the works of the great masters.

Do not tell me that you as students will first learn how to draw and then afterwards attend to all this.

It is only through such motives that you can learn to draw. This kind of thought is drawing, the hand must obey the spirit. With motive you will become clairvoyant of means, will seize and command them. Without motive you will wabble about.

Realize that your sitter has a state of being, that this state of being manifests itself to you through form, color and gesture, that your appreciation of him has depended on your perception of these things in their significance, that they are there of your selection (others will see differently), that your work will be the statement of what have been your emotions, and you will use these specialized forms, colors and gestures to make your statement. Plainly you are to develop as a seer, as an appreciator as well as a craftsman. You are to give the craftsman in you a motive, else he cannot develop.

All that I have said argues the predominant value of gesture. Gesture expresses through form and color the states of life.

Work with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in delaying. Get the greatest possibility of expression in the larger masses first. Then the features in their greatest simplicity in concordance with and dependent on the mass. Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying. But do not pass from the work on mass to features until all that can be said with the larger forms has been said—no matter how long it may take, no matter if accomplishment of the picture may be delayed from one to many days. Hold to this principle that the greatest drawing, the greatest expression, the greatest completion, the sense of all contained, lies in what can be done through the larger masses and the larger gestures.

¶WHEN we know the relative value of things we can do anything with them. We can build with them without destroying them. Under such conditions they are enhanced by coming into contact with each other.

The study of art is the study of the relative value of things. The factors of a work of art cannot be used constructively until their relative values are known. Unstable governments, like unstable works of art, are such as they are because values have not been appreciated.

The most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory is of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look. This correlation does not continue. New arrangements, greater or less, replace them as mood changes. The special order has to be retained in memory—that special look, and that order which was its expression. Memory must hold it. All work done from the subject thereafter must be no more than data-gathering. The subject is now in another mood. A new series of relations has been established. These may confound. The memory of that special look must be held, and the "subject" can now only serve as an indifferent manikin of its former self. The picture must not become a patchwork of parts of various moods. The original mood must be held to.

The artist sees only that in the model which may help him to build up the look he would record. His work is now very difficult. With the model before him he works from memory. He refers to the model, but he does not follow the new relations which differing moods establish. He chooses only from the appearance before him that which relates to his true subject—the look which first inspired him to work. That look has passed and it may not return. He is very fortunate if he can evoke again that look in the subject.

It is very difficult to go away from a subject after having received an impression and set that impression down from memory. It is yet more difficult to work from memory with the "subject" in its changing moods still before you. All good work is done from memory whether the model is still present or not. With the model present there is coupled with the distracting changes in its organization which must not be followed, the advantage of seeing, nevertheless, the material—the raw material one might say—of which the look was made.

Were the student constantly in the habit of memory-practice there is little doubt but that he would dispense with the presence of the model at the time of the actual accomplishment of his work. But this would mean a form of study which has not yet come in vogue. There is no form of study more fascinating than this—that is, after the first disheartening steps are taken. The first steps are disheartening because while we may have learned copying right well the effort to put down what we actually know—that is, what we can carry away with us—is often a revelation of the very little understanding we had in the presence of the model.

I think it is safe to say that the kind of seeing and the kind of thinking done by one who works with the model always before him is entirely different from the kind of seeing and thinking done by one who is about to lose the presence of the model and will have to continue his work from the knowledge he gained in the intimate presence.

The latter type of worker generally manifests a mental activity of much higher order than his apparently safe and secure confrère. He must know and he must know that he knows before the model is snatched away from him. He studies for information.

A good painting is a remarkable feat of organization. Every part of it is wonderful in itself because it seems so alive in its share in the making of the unity of the whole, and the whole is so definitely one thing.

You can look at a good painting in but one way. That is, the way it is made. Whether you will or not you must follow its sequences.

There are some paintings, very remarkable for the skill they display, which are, however, a mere welding together of factors which belong to many different expressions of nature. Many a school drawing of this character have I seen held up as an example, given a prize, and yet being but a mere patching together of many concepts—unrelated factors nevertheless cunningly interwoven—there is not in them that surge of life, that unity which is the mark of true organization.

If you wish your work to have organization your concept of the motive which is the incentive to your flight must be as certain and you must hold as well to it as you would have your organization certain and true to itself in all of its parts.


  • "I would give anything to have come by this book years ago. It is in my opinion comparable only to the notes of Leonardo and Sir Joshua...One of the finest voices which express the philosophy of modern men in painting."
    George Bellows

On Sale
Mar 27, 2007
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Robert Henri

About the Author

Robert Henri (1865-1929) was an American artist, teacher, and an outspoken advocate of modernism in painting. He is best known for his leadership of the group of realist painters known as “The Eight,” later termed the Ashcan School. Henri was a devotee of realism and the usage of everyday city life as a subject matter. He taught at the Art Students League in New York from 1915-1928, and had a profound influence upon early 20th century painters such as Stuart Davis, Rockwell Kent, and Edward Hopper.

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