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Robert Henri’s California at Laguna Art Museum

Tam Gan, 1914
Tam Gan, 1914
Robert Henri/Albright-Knox Art Gallery

“Westward Ho! I am now quite convinced that San Diego is one of the most interesting and beautiful places in the world and we shall head that way and will not be convinced otherwise until we have seen the place and have been turned away” -- Robert Henri in a 1914 letter to former student Alice Klauber

Supposing your father had killed a man; you might well expect to grow up on the run: fleeing from town to town, state to state, your family’s identity concealed under a cloud of aliases.

Painter Robert Henri was baptized Robert Cozad in 1865. After a fatal shooting in Nebraska, his family fled and kept moving, every member under a different name, until they dropped anchor in Atlantic City, where Robert "Henri" began to seriously paint at 18.

Probably, the family’s furtive, compulsive travels implanted in Henri — he liked to pronounce it “Hen-Rye” -- his own lifelong urge to stay on the go, even once he’d become one of America’s most treasured artists, famous for his nurturing an entire generation of artists called the “Ashcan School,’’ as well as his own sensual nudes and evocative streetscapes.

(L-R Ashcan School artists Everett Shinn, Robert Henri and John Sloan, c. 1896. Unknown photographer)

Henri worked in France, Spain, Holland, Ireland, New York, New Mexico, Philadelphia and Maine before friends urged him to Southern California just over a century ago. He loved the light and the climate, liked the people too, even in those peak days of Golden State developers’ hype.

Although he visited the state repeatedly, he never managed to settle here, but he did some impressive and singular painting, much of it on display now at the Laguna Art Museum. LAM Executive Director Malcolm Warner suggests that Henri’s California experience strongly influenced his work for the decade that followed.

(Montage of Henri portraits. Credit: LAM)

Certainly, the works here — mostly portraits — show an ethnic diversity never before apparent in Henri’s oeuvre. The people of San Diego’s various barrios were all members of something Henri called the “Great American Race.” His “race” was vastly inclusive: Native Americans, Chinese, blacks, Mexican Americans.

Unlike nearly every white American of his time, Robert Henri saw native-born people of color as inheritors of American civilization. He said: "I am looking at each individual with the eager hope of finding there something of the dignity of life, the humor, the humanity, the kindness … that will rescue the race and the nation.” Because this nation was then a land of Jim Crow laws and anti-Asian laws, his vision seems astounding to us now. In his months in San Diego between 1914 and 1915, he produced about 100 pictures. Those of the local minorities are the highlights of the little Laguna show, curated by Derrick Cartwright.   

Although Henri had always delighted in painting children, here his portrayals of the young seem both more serious and more joyful than ever before. Serious, in that he tried to share the feelings of his subjects, and joyful in a sense of discovery of literally the faces of other cultures.

"Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is not an outside, extra thing. When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. . .Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, the artist opens it, shows there are still more pages possible." -- Robert Henri, "The Art Spirit" (1923)

The Chinese pictures seem the most successful; in them, Henri, who had put in years as a society portraitist, cut loose from such formalism. In his studies “Mukie” and “Jim Lee,” Henri’s long-discarded expressionism returns in wonderful full force with powerful, precisely-broad brush strokes, against abstract, yellow-mottled backgrounds. The other Chinese portraits are also powerful, if more conventional.

As it happened, Henri first visited San Diego just as the city was ramping up to its 1915 Panama California Exhibition commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal. As part of the exhibit, the promoters brought families of Native Americans from New Mexico to live in a specially constructed pueblo as a human exhibit. Henri rendered full-size portraits of two of them, Tom Po Qui and Po Tse.

The first, better known as Ramoncita, was a famous potter, an artist in her own right. The pictures, while gorgeous exercises in color, have less feeling than many of the other works here.   It was as if Henri admired the pair more than he was able to understand them.

There are also some very fine and expressive portraits illustrating his California days, and a bit sadly, 10 years after he first arrived here. For on his last trip to California (just four years before his 1919 death), he abandoned the singular humble people of the state and concentrated on the rich and powerful and their wives and children. The ripest, most interesting period of his portrait creativity was over.

But from the show in Laguna, we can fully see what a remarkable period that was.

"Robert Henri’s California: Realism, Race, and Region, 1914-1925" is at the Laguna Art Museum through May 31