Venturing Into the Spirit of Art with Robert Henri

Most artists praise Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit as a great classic, yet it’s rarely known outside the realm of creative arts. I read it several years ago in a great gluttonous feast of literature, and now it’s time to return for proper digestion. His deeply spiritual thoughts are nutrition for any thinking person, so I’m going public with this. And because so many thoughtful people are asking me about what inspires and motivates me as an artist, it’s worth studying the depths as an explorer. We’re moving into the future, building our knowledge and skills in the present, always with an eye on the past.


How do we eat a wooly mammoth? One bite at a time…


“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. Signposts on the way to what may be. Signposts toward greater knowledge.” Robert Henri



‘Greater knowledge’ for whom? Each of us has a unique perspective on any particular moment, based upon an infinite combination of his or her particular chain of life events. How can I possibly know what message will connect with your message so that we can share a moment of truth? Are these the greatest moments of happiness for Henri because he has all the answers? I don’t think that’s the case. Robert Henri’s revelations are poignant, yet vague. Could this be the fruit of the tree of life, as opposed to the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good & evil?


“Father will ask us to choose, in the hour of despair, whether we will worship the mystery of God, choosing the tree of life, or whether we will hold on to reason, choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Dennis Peacocke


When we choose life, despite the discomfort of the moment, we are suddenly timeless. The results of our actions may be success or failure, depending upon the worldview of success or failure, but living in that moment yields an infinite peace. These are the ‘moments of greatest happiness,’ like a woman who knows she’s beautiful without having to think about it.


‘Moments of our greatest wisdom’ sometimes must start with a fleeing moment of contrast in a life of perpetual foolishness. It’s the moment when we glimpse the timelessness of it all. That no matter how brief, this is a glance into eternity. Once we’ve peeked in the window of heaven, part of us turns voyeuristic. We long to gaze, yet unprepared, the sight eludes us.


Peter, on the Mount of Transfiguration, wanted to construct monuments to honor his vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah. (Luke 9:27-36) We all have an instinctive desire to memorialize the moment. But in that moment for Peter, God said, “Change the subject. My Son is what matters here.” Evidently that wasn’t the time or place.


I’m reeling from that rejection today. I entered 5 paintings in a local gallery adjudication last week. I was sure that my work was equal—and even superior to some of—their artists’. Is it really worth my time and effort to continue this frustrating game? I really thought that my work could communicate there. Don’t my paintings transcend spoken language? It sure is tempting to work this out in my own logic…or to base my next move on their critique…that is, if I can summon the courage to ask why they rejected my work.


Alternatively, can I manage to celebrate the moments that brought me to this place? Every moment spent painting is a conversation with the divine. (Most of the time, I fall on my knees for my ineptitude.) The subjects that I choose to paint are memorials to the natural beauty of my surroundings. Many friends contributed their time in helping me to choose the portfolio pieces. I met friendly, helpful people in the frame shop, l’Art & Cadre à Centre Commercial d’Aubagne. The staff of Corep print shop in Aix is always supportive of my efforts and patient with my technological incompetence. I wish I could thank the Police Municipal on the Cours Mirabeau for allowing me to double-park while I dropped off the paintings, rather, I must choose gratitude for when I’m the one trying to circumnavigate the boulevard. Mme Florence Naget, the artist currently exposing in the gallery, was an absolute delight to meet, so I’m thankful for her kindness as we discussed our lives as artists.


How do you decide whether today’s failure is a ‘Stop’ or a ‘Go?’



AIXcavating Robert Henri's The Art Spirit

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