It is difficult for us to realize today how infinitely more arduous exhibition conditions were then for the young painter. Art had not then become news to anything like the degree it has since become news. Dealers were not then chasing each other over the face of the earth to discover the unknown genius. The great official exhibitions were controlled by the prize-winning repeaters. Men who today cannot give their pictures away prospered greatly and were powerful influences on our public and on some of our private collections. As long as these tame specialists controlled the situation the young independent American artist had no opportunity to sell or even to show his work. Henri was hated by the officials because from the first they realized that his attack on them was disinterested. He was not fighting for a theory of painting or for his own individual advancement. He merely demanded from the reactionaries in power a fair and free opportunity for the young independent American artist.
Conditions are no less arduous than they’ve ever been. Watson was writing from a comfortable perch in 1939. Perhaps he'd forgotten that anything that’s worth doing well is worth doing consistently, and the spirit-in-training only gets stronger through encountering difficulty. Comfort is usually a happy bedfellow with complacency. The ‘starving artist’ may be a romantic figure, but at some point, technical education must walk the street until somebody takes her home. Are you walking what you’re talking? And do you wake up in the gutter, or on the road to adventure?
The first American Independent Exhibition which Henri and his friends and pupils inaugurated, the ancestor of the present Independent Society, contained paintings of real power, some of which are now the proudest possessions of collectors and museums, but which then could find no public exhibiting space outside the walls of the Independent.
No one will ever be able to estimate how much Henri contributed to the free and open conditions of today. All over the United States ex-Henri students are to be found. The men and women who were taught by Henri to respect freedom of expression never have forgotten or can forget this invaluable lesson.
So, where are the students of the students?!!
To Henri the man and the teacher, the debt that America owes is inestimable. He came at a time when the officials were still in power, and had their heavy paws firmly on the neck of youth and originality. Henri fought for freedom and he gave to his students the courage to conquer officialdom.
“The Art Spirit” embodies the entire system of Henri’s teaching. To make it more complete he went over his notes and correspondence for twenty-three years. His book is indeed so individual and characteristic that those who knew him can recognize the very tones and manner of utterance that he employed. The book is not only teaching, it is inspiration.
The most effective way to break through the trials is to train under a skilled teacher. What became of Robert Henri’s students? The Art Spirit is his legacy; what were theirs?
Think about your biggest life lessons. Who trained you to conquer the spirit of death with your life? Where, when and how? What made that person different?
What’s the greatest life-giving legacy that you’re passing to future generations?