Disorganized lessons from America’s Ashcan School master
Henri was a champion of realist painting and has nothing good to say about abstraction, but his conception of realism is broad enough to include modernists like Cézanne and Matisse. Other artists frequently singled out for praise are Manet, Whistler, Rembrandt, and Velazquez. Henri talks a lot about how artists should find their own path, but at the same time, like any art instructor, he kind of wants you to paint like himself, and the lessons reflect that. Not surprisingly, therefore, this book will mostly speak to those artists and viewers who appreciate realist art. Henri was also primarily a painter of portraits and figures, so much of the how-to instruction is directed towards those subjects, though still lifes and landscapes are occasionally discussed.
Henri’s views on art were very profound and rather groundbreaking for their time (at least in America). His wisdom is imparted in elegant and articulate prose, and I agree with just about everything he has to say about art. The biggest problem with this book is its lack of organization. The Art Spirit was not deliberately written by Henri but rather compiled by one of his students. The assortment of articles, letters, and lecture notes included are arranged haphazardly, like a painter’s version of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. There is really no logic to the way the information is organized or presented (although there is an index). This isn’t the fault of Henri but rather the fault of the editors, publisher, book designer, and typesetter. For no explicable reason, sometimes there are spaces between paragraphs, sometimes not. Sometimes paragraphs begin with capital letters, as if they are starting a new thought, but again that’s not apparent from the contents of the text. Occasionally there are headings, but it is often unclear whether these headings apply to the next paragraph or the next several pages. The book includes many “Letters of Criticism,” in which Henri critiques the paintings of his students. The reader can’t see the paintings being reviewed, so specific comments on the contents of the paintings are useless, but these critiques still have some worthwhile general comments on Henri’s methods and philosophy of art. His articles, reprinted from magazines, are very insightful. The least helpful items in the book are the many one-sentence aphorisms drawn from who knows where.
This lack of organization leads to much repetition of content. The result is a book that annoys as much as it inspires. When one first picks up The Art Spirit, Henri’s wisdom really motivates the reader to want to make art, but by the time one gets to the end of the volume the text has become tedious and tiresome. There is much valuable information here for artists, but instead of plowing through the pages this is a book that would best be savored over the course of a few months and then kept on hand for occasional future reference.
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