Painters in Winter: Chapter Four

Robert Henri

Robert Henri

Early on that evening of the second, at Mouquin’s (called Mook’s by regulars), Robert Henri has drinks with John Sloan and a narrow-faced woman named Mary Perkins, a teacher from Spartanburg, South Carolina. Just this afternoon Miss Perkins invited Sloan to contribute a picture to her college’s annual spring art show—she very much admired the small dark one titled “Coffee Line.” Sloan has agreed to send it, naturally. He never says no to an exhibit. Usually it’s the other way around.

Henri signals the waiter—Another sauterne, s’il vous plait—and wonders why this Perkins woman hasn’t asked him to submit a painting. She visited his studio as well as Sloan’s, she saw all of his work. Why hasn’t she asked Henri for something? It bothers him. It shouldn’t, but it does. He’s feeling raw these days, and her snub irks him. Though how important can the show truly be—a college in South Carolina? Tell me, Miss Perkins, he says now, have you ever been to Holland? It’s so delightful! I spent last summer there, you know. Painting.

When the gypsy (so they say) orchestra begins a medley of George M. Cohan songs, conversation becomes difficult. Oh, to hell with it; already it’s half-past seven, and Henri and Sloan have to be getting along—the big meeting. Check, please. With only a few cents in his pocket, Sloan lets his friend pick up the tab.

After dropping Miss Perkins at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women on Twenty-ninth Street, the two painters stroll uptown together on Madison Avenue discussing this week’s opening at the National Arts Club (several of Sloan’s etchings are to be included in the show, as is Henri’s full-length portrait of his late wife Linda). Then, naturally, the talk swings to their upcoming exhibition at Macbeth’s gallery in February. Henri mentions that he’s just about finished correcting the proofs of a most sympathetic article about the group—“Eight American Painters”—scheduled for publication in The Craftsman magazine. He’s fixed up a lot of quotes, he says, which Sloan takes to mean he’s put words into everyone’s mouth. But that’s all right. Henri has a gift for words. He’s a natural propagandist.

Robert Henri’s new studio is on East Fortieth Street. Top floor of an old church. Roomy enough, with electric, but rather Spartan. And the windows are filthy. What good is north light if the windows, goddamn it, are gray? Last year, he rented a beautiful place overlooking Bryant Park and the Public Library. He was never really able to afford the two hundred dollars it cost him every month—not on a teacher’s salary!—but he’d struggled to keep it as long as he could. In June, though—just before he’d left for Europe as a paid chaperone to a group of art students—he finally had to give it up. For this dump!

There are dozens and dozens of pictures stacked and leaning around—at least twice as many as at Sloan’s—but hardly any that are new. Since Henri’s return from Haarlem in October, he’s done only that portrait—there, still on the easel—of a model named Jesseca Penn, and that head of a smiling young Negro girl. “Eva Green.” Ordinarily, he’s a painting dervish, renowned—and in academic circles ridiculed—for his speed with a brush. Don’t dally, just do it, he tells his students at the New York School of Art. Paint, paint! Speed and energy, men, speed and energy!

Lately, though, Henri’s amazing productivity has slacked off, his spirits have flagged, and he’s fallen—as he has fallen before, after the death of his young wife, the death of his old father—into a deep blue funk. His students adore him. So what? He sold a painting to the government of France. Nine years ago. Newspaper critics call him an artist of the first water. Then why—pray tell—isn’t he swamped with portrait commissions? Painter! He should’ve been a writer.

Have a seat, John, he says, I won’t be a minute. Then he tamps out his cigar (he smokes constantly), takes off his coat, unbuttons his shirt, and goes off to wash.

At 42, Henri is still touchy about his bad complexion. Since boyhood in Nebraska, he’s been scrubbing his face with abrasive soap at least five times a day. During his student years abroad, in the late 1880s, early 90s, it became something of a joke among his painter friends, all that mad scrubbing. As if it could make a difference! Let’s go, Hen. Dry your face, for heaven’s sake, and let’s go sketching while the light’s still good. He’d carefully pat dry his cheeks with a towel, then peer at himself in the mirror, and groan. Come on, Hen! You coming or not? Not: he was already working up a fresh lather….

As he completes this evening’s ablutions—cupping his hands, scooping water from the basin, rinsing his pitted face—he thinks about that magazine article again, and turns a bit of phrasing over and over in his mind: We choose to exhibit together because we like one another’s work, not because our work is alike. Our work is not really alike, it’s simply that we like each other’s work. We are eight independent artists, we don’t comprise a school. No. We’ve chosen to exhibit together because—

His face dried, his thick black mustache combed, he spends half a minute examining himself in the mirror—widening his eyes, grimacing to have a good look at his teeth and gums, poking his neck with two fingers. He could do with a shave.

not because our work is in any way alike…


Our work is not alike, because…


Robert Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad in 1865, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He mother was (still is) a Virginian, a small, sturdy, sour woman. His father—John Jackson Cozad—was as tall and elongated as Lincoln. He had silvered black hair, a hook nose, a pursed mouth, an imperious goatee. His glance could be as piercing, and profane, as the Devil’s. Throughout his youth and well into middle-age, he’d traveled up and down the Mississippi River (and once to Central America) as a high-stakes gambler—the King of Faro, banned from certain steamboat lines, frequently threatened with murder. He was polished, charming, misanthropic, a perfect gentleman; he carried a sidearm as well as a concealed derringer. And he always dressed immaculately, in a Prince Albert coat, a double-breasted vest, dark trousers, kid gloves and a high silk hat—an ideal costume for the casino, but an affectation in Nebraska, which is where he moved with his wife and two sons in 1873. To build a town on 50,000 acres of prairie that he’d leased from the Union Pacific railroad.

Within a couple of years, Cozad, Nebraska had a wide Main Street lined with clapboard buildings, a decent hotel, a one-room school, and its own weekly newspaper. But still, it was no paradise. The winters were frigid and snowy, the summers oppressively hot. There were invasions of migratory locusts. The Pawnee and Sioux were hostile. Feuds between settlers erupted often into violence—barns caught fire mysteriously and burned down, wells were poisoned, windows shot out. And Texas cattlemen persisted in driving their herds—two- and three-hundred head at a time—across newly tilled farmland.

Young Robert Cozad grew up mending fences and tossing hay with his older brother on the family farm; for recreation, he’d hunt snakes with a six-gun or shoot tin cans off a boulder, skate on the Platte River, doodle faces and cartoon figures in the margins of novels by Twain and Dickens. He fully expected to live out his life there, in the raw grandeur of the American West.

And he might’ve, too, if it hadn’t been for Alfred Pearson. For the Alfred Pearson Incident. October 1882. Twenty-five years ago, but still every detail is fresh in his mind, as though it happened only last Friday. He remembers hearing someone shouting for his mother, calling, Mrs. Cozad—missus! And he remembers jumping from bed, grabbing his pistol, then seeing a man from town, a gangling Swedish barman—ghostly pale, all out of breath—standing in the kitchen doorway. Saying, Please, missus, sit.

There’d been a fight at the hotel saloon. Angry words between John Jackson and a cattle herder named Pearson, who pulled a knife. It was a clear threat—everybody saw that Pearson had a knife. Everybody—

Is he dead?  Mrs. Cozad interrupting, saying, But is he dead?

And the barman saying, Not yet, but he will be. Then saying, I mean Mr. Pearson. It’s Mr. Pearson that’s dying. Not Mr. Cozad. Mr. Cozad shot Mr. Pearson in the mouth.

Robert’s father never returned to the house that night, or ever again; afraid that he might be charged with murder, or even lynched, he’d fled. Six days later Pearson died, and a warrant was issued for John Cozad’s arrest. There was nothing for the family to do then but leave town, quickly. After selling their property (Mrs. Cozad sewed the cash into her bloomers and petticoats) they packed their clothing into a steamer trunk and quit Nebraska for good.

The family reunited in Kansas City, and from there moved east, eventually settling in Atlantic City. As a precaution, they all assumed new names. Mr. and Mrs. Cozad became Mr. and Mrs. Richard H. Lee. John Jr. became Frank Sothern. Robert became Robert Earl Henri—which he pronounced hen like the barnyard fowl and rye like the whiskey. Hen-rye. Although they physically resembled each other, the boys pretended to be foster brothers, adopted children.

Mr. Lee bought property where Texas Avenue joined the beach, just north of the sprawling Negro shanty-town. With his sons he built and sold half a dozen houses. The house that he built for himself he dubbed Fort Lee.

With the coming of the amusement pavilions in the 1880s, Atlantic City was just entering its glory days as a summer resort, and it was there, on the new boardwalk, that Robert Henri made his first paintings—he painted landscapes on clamshells and hawked them as souvenirs. Original art, fifty cents! he’d holler to old married couples rolling by in canopied rickshaws, or to young men eating deviled crabs at a food counter, to young women with incense tapers in their high coiffures (the mosquitoes could eat you alive). Original art, fifty cents! Original art! When he was 19, he painted his first canvas, and decorated Fort Lee with several murals.

During the summer of 1886, and for the first time since leaving Nebraska, Henri began to think seriously about what he ought to do with his life. About what career he might pursue with some chance of distinction and success. His older brother had plans to become a doctor, but medicine wasn’t for him, and neither was his father’s real estate business. He’d always enjoyed drawing, though, and cartooning (for years he’d clipped and copied Gillam and Keppler and Opper cartoons from Puck magazine) and now he was painting every day, almost, in watercolor and oils. The more he considered, the more it seemed evident that he ought to study art. That he should become an artist. He went and told his father. It’s quite a gamble, said Mr. Lee, the gambler, but go ahead.

That fall, Henri enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia—a big brick-and-limestone building at the corner of Broad and Cherry streets. He went there expecting to study with Thomas Eakins, the notorious realist painter. (Notorious because he’d offended good taste by showing blood on the hands of a surgeon in a picture called “Gross Clinic,” and because as Director of the Pennsylvania Academy, he’d made the dissection of corpses part of the Anatomy curriculum, and substituted naked models for plaster statues in Life Drawing classes.) Eakins, though, had been forced to resign seven months before Henri’s arrival—he’d removed the loin cloth from a male model in front of female students and one of them had informed her finance about it. But two of Eakins’ former pupils—Thomas Anschutz and James B. Kelly—were now on the faculty, and from them Henri heard second-hand the master’s lectures on musculature and proportion. He completed his painting assignments at night, in the room that he shared with his brother on South Ninth Street. It was a boardinghouse and there were goings and comings at all hours, a young girl who practiced scales on the upright piano. He worked with cotton stuffed in his ears.

At first he didn’t seem to be a student of great promise—his draughtsmanship was crude, his color sense abysmal. But he was dedicated. Like his father, he was stubborn. He’d made a decision and now he would stick with it.

And he has, for over twenty years he’s stuck with it.

He’s stuck with it.


Henri turns now from the dry sink to find John Sloan, seated at a table, muttering as he adds up a column of numbers in a small ledger book. Eight plus six is fourteen, plus seven makes twenty one, one carry the two…. He glances at Henri, frowns, then returns to his arithmetic. Two plus nine, eleven; plus four….

Henri lights a fresh cigar, then paces nervously. He moves to the front window and opens it an inch, his glance going down to the street—is that Lawson on the corner? No. Where is everybody? He’s eager for the meeting to begin, it’s just the thing, the very thing, to lift his spirits. Henri has always relished meetings, loves striding back and forth in front of a group, his long, tapered  fingers gesturing like a stage magician’s, like Svengali’s. He speaks in complete grammatical sentences, his voice mellow and Southern-inflected. He can hold any floor, mesmerize—dominate—any group. Except when George Luks is present and drunk. Which is why there’s no alcoholic refreshments on hand tonight. Just pretzels, a bowl of hard German pretzels.

Where is everybody? he wants to know. John, did you—?

He did. He notified everyone. Except Prendergast, of course, who’s in Boston.

Henri laces his fingers together and then flings them apart.

The Macbeth show—the success of the Macbeth show—means a great deal to him. He wants desperately to sell, just as he wants desperately to be recognized as an important painter, to be taken seriously, to have his work collected and hung in museums. Museums, mind you. Not just in galleries, museums.

At his age—squarely middle-aged and actuarially well past that—Henri is eager for some creature comforts, and bitter that he still can’t afford the home, the studio, the wardrobe that he feels he deserves. Unlike Sloan, who seems constitutionally scornful of wealth, Henri is jealous of it. Over the past several years he’s done portraits—commissions—of a number of men and women who, by any standard, would have to be considered rich. And he’s found the slow pace of their lives much to his liking.

(Henri can be as touchy about those portraits, by the way, as he is about his complexion. He suspects that some of his friends, even some of his students, believe that his portrait work is inferior to his city pictures and river paintings, that he’s slighted his art to fill his wallet. Not true, simply not true! He’s never flattered a sitter. Not one. And yet. There are times when he feels that his work ought to be—just a little—more felt, more spontaneous than it has been in the last year or so.)

Perhaps…perhaps his poor spirits—his hypersensitivity—are just the natural result of overwork, too much teaching, the strain of the upcoming show; the consequence of loneliness. His wife has been dead for more than two years, and while he’s had some female companionship since then (almost always with an attractive and talented young student) he is without a soul mate, still. And is still apt to appear, late at night and with a deck of cards, at Sloan’s door, if solitude and memory and gall become too oppressive…

Continue to read CHAPTER FIVE →