Robert Henri on the song within

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What a month June has panned out to be. Between writing and a summer job, it’s been a busy one. On the making front, other than finishing up a Leticia shawl (unblocked…more on this soon), I’ve been enjoying The Art Spirit, by painter and portraitist Robert HenriOriginally published in 1923, The Art Spirit is a collection of Henri’s notes, letters and lectures to his pupils and proteges on the creative life. For the devoted student of painting, there’s lots to sink one’s technical teeth into: painterly lessons on colour theory, composition, the importance of keeping a clean palette (I always lapsed there), avoiding the overuse of ‘white’ to convey value (I did that), and cultivating the powers of visual memory.

But this little collection shines most brightly, I think, in how the fragments come together to convey a message on the ‘art spirit’: the joyful cultivation of vision and imagination. For Henri, ‘art’ (a term which he does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through our imaginative sensibilities — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, rendered sensate, and finding exuberance and discovery in our worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to allow what we make to be a trace of that living.

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Image source: The School of Life’s The Dangers of Being Dutiful (a delightful Youtube video on precisely that).

This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri articulates the idea, in different ways, with his own mix of wonder, warmth, and the ardent desire that budding artists learn, beyond technique, to recognize, value, and find tremendous joy in their ‘inner sense,’ and in painting as a modality of life.

You’ll find some of the Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below (I’ve gone ahead and feminized the masculine pronouns).

The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which she was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of her before she has passed into what is understood as real life. 

On the experience of creative insight:

At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold material intellect… yet we live in the memory of these songs… They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art. 

Cherish your own emotions and never under-value them. We are not here to do what has already been done.

Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing.

From a letter of criticism to a student:

Your education must be self-education. Self-education is an effort to free one’s course so that a full growth may be attained. One need not be afraid of what this full growth may become. Give your throat a chance to sing its song. All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use…Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.

The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.

And one last one, for now, from a painting critique Henri wrote to a student: “I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”

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16 thoughts on “Robert Henri on the song within

  1. Lots of words of wisdom about being artist. I think this would apply to most things in life, too. It’s really a challenge for a lot of people to be responsible for their own learning, for example, in a setting where there are teachers.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Tony. 🙂 Yes, it’s inspiring to be reminded to take responsibility for learning. Somehow, this is easier for me in crafting than it is elsewhere! Enjoy your weekend, and hoping you’re staying cool in these sweltery days!

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  2. This post really resonates with me–thank you so much for sharing Henri’s insight. The funny thing about that inner song is that it creates both tremendous highs and devastating lows. But I think that strength of feeling (living) is more valuable than alternative, perhaps comfortable, silence of heart. Thanks for reminding me of the *privilege* of being an artist on this sunny Friday ❤

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    1. Thanks for reading, Weekes, and for your thoughtful comments. 🙂 I often wondered if there was a way to skip the lows and enjoy the highs, creatively speaking, but you are absolutely right – they’re kind of like *both* always a possible outcome (scary!). I’m hoping to get better at accepting this very real fact! I admire your dedication to your craft – it is no small feat! Happy weekend!

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      1. Yes, there is much to be learned from the lows, if we can bear them. I admire YOUR dedication to your craft and to sharing your insightful posts! I hope you had a nice weekend and are starting the week on a creative high 🙂

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  3. Thanks for reading, Melinda. It’s wonderful to know that you’ve enjoyed this read as well! I’ve been trying to apply his ideas on colour to future project-thinking… lots of gems in this book. Cheers! 🙂


  4. I’ll have to see if my local library has this one – I so enjoyed the quotations you shared at the end! And it was a timely reminder about how important it is to be yourself in your work, and use it to seek out and capture what brings you joy in the world. I might also finally get around to cracking into the watercolours I bought for myself at the beginning of the year, too 😆 Thanks for the tip, Shirley… And I can’t wait to see your finished shawl!

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    1. Thanks, Helen. 🙂 Yes, I appreciate his take on joy for that reason; it’s a useful antidote to the narrative that one needs to suffer for art’s sake (oh no!). Speaking of joy, that sounds like a very exciting addition to the craft/art supplies! 🙂 It’s a wonderful way to paint. I wish you lots of watercolour-happiness in the coming time! 🙂


      1. I agree – suffering shouldn’t enter into the equation! Persistence, yes… But not out-and-out suffering! As for the watercolours, I just need to find a little spare pocket of time to get started. It feels like perfect watercolour weather just now, so I should really take advantage!

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