Robert Henri on the song within

Hi, folks. We’re on the cusp of another year, and bringing some hope and lightness to this passage feels more necessary to me than usual. Today, I’m reposting a 2018 reflection; I’m revisiting it because I find myself seeking out an affirming and ‘art teacherly’ voice — some guidance and inspiration for what I hope to be a new phase of embracing creativity. My past thoughts on Robert Henri’s text, The Art Spirit, have been helping me remember some things. SO, whatever your medium, I hope this offers a creative uplift.

I look forward to seeing the incredible projects that 2021 has in store for you, and wish you another year, as Henri wrote, of “great happiness in creation.”

-Shirley


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.

the art spirit.jpg

But this little collection shines most brightly 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 the book does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through experience, the senses, and the imagination — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, and finding exuberance and discovery in our own unique worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to trace the lines of that living through the things that we make.

school of life 1
Image source: The School of Life’s The Dangers of Being Dutiful 

This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri expresses 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 intuition — what he calls the “inner sense.” For Henri, painting is not merely a technical skill; it is a way of being alive and in full relation to oneself and the world. Henri uses a particular metaphor for this relationship: creative joy is like finding and singing your song with all of your heart — a scary proposition, when I think of it, but The Art Spirit suggests that we give our throats “a chance to sing.”

You’ll find some of The Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below.


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 (on safeguarding your “song”):

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 Henri’s letter 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 (something which I think all evolving artists need to hear):

“I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”

2 thoughts on “Robert Henri on the song within

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