COZAD — Nebraska artist Robert Henri created powerful images and — more importantly — he influenced a generation of painters.
“Robert Henri is not only one of America’s greatest artists who created an American art school, but probably equally important, if not more important, is that he taught hundreds of students,” said Peter Osborne, executive director of the Robert Henri Museum and Art Gallery in Cozad.
Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Joseph Stella, George Bellows — Henri taught these artists whose careers influenced art history.
“He had this incredible influence on hundreds of his students,” Osborne said. “Margery Ryerson, one of his pupils, went on to compile his notes, lectures and presentations he gave, into a book known as ‘The Art Spirit.’ That is a book that still, after all these years from its publication in the mid-1920s, is still in publication and still used by art teachers all over the world.”
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The Robert Henri Museum and Gallery will celebrate the life of Henri, born in Cozad in 1865, with a 154th Birthday and Arts Festival, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the museum at 218 E. Eighth St. in Cozad. The event include demonstrations, music, beer tastings and birthday cake.
Henri and his family lived in Cozad from 1872 until 1883. His father build a hotel to serve early settlers and travelers. The young artist lived there with his family until his father shot a rancher in an altercation in 1883. His father immediately left the area and the rest of the family followed soon after, assuming new identities.
In addition to challenging some of the rules of art, Henri also changed the expectations for art shows.
“Prior to 1908, most art shows were juried and it required going before a panel of judges,” Osborne said. “In the case of ‘The Immortal Eight,’ he and seven other artists created their own show. That show at the Mac Beth Gallery in New York City drew thousands of people. It was non-juried. That was the first time that happened.”
Henri, who died in 1929, did not know how he influenced future generations of artists.
Osborne noted that the major museums of Nebraska, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, own several Henri portraits.
“We have the largest collection of Henri paintings and sketches in the world here at our museum,” Osborne said. “We have not only five portraits, we have 11 of his paintings and 43 of his sketches. We have this very wide, broad scope of his work. You can see various aspects of his work — landscapes, portraits, even a study.”
The collection lets patrons see how Henri developed an idea, sketched it and eventually finished the concept with a painting.
“Having traveled across America over the years and written a biography of one of his students, I am amazed at what we have here,” Osborne said. “I remember, when I first walked into the museum when I came for a job interview in November, the first thing I said to the president of the group was, ‘I can’t believe this is here in the middle of Nebraska.’ It’s amazing that this collection is here and not in New York at the Met or in Chicago.”
Osborne sees the museum’s advantage in that the institution only focuses on one subject — work by Henri.
“I think that’s what gives us our uniqueness,” he said. “We have this collection that you cannot see anyplace else in the world.”
If given the chance, Osborne would like to ask the artist about his life before leaving Nebraska.
“His life after Nebraska, particularly when he attended the Art School in Philadelphia and went on to receive international acclaim, all of that is well documented,” Osborne said. “But the one thing is that his father shot a rancher who ultimately died. The family left Cozad in fear that the father would be tried and hung. His father was ultimately cleared. The question I would have for Robert Henri is that he writes this amazing book called ‘The Art Spirit’ and talks about the freedom to express one’s self.”
In the artist’s lifetime, he only told less than a handful of people about his Nebraska experience.
“Obviously the family did not want that word to get out,” Osborne said. “If you were to have dinner with Robert Henri and you went around the room asking, ‘Where are you from?’ you would get to him and he was say, ‘We’re all from somewhere,’ never answering the question.”
Osborne would like to know how Henri could justify leaving out the details of his Nebraska beginnings.
“That’s the question I would like to ask him,” he said.