Urban Realism and the American Scene

Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Figure in Motion, 1913
Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69

Object-Robert Henri, Figure in Motion

A founder of the so-called Ashcan school and respected teacher of several major modernists, Robert Henri rejected conservative art education and instead encouraged subjective artistic expression. Created for the famed Armory Show of 1913, Figure in Motion presents a nude woman in a dancelike pose; it evokes a single moment in a movement that presumably will continue. Henri’s expressive brushwork complements the figure’s sense of motion and emphasizes the active nature of painting itself. He portrays the female nude as a modern individual. Her fluid gesture, as she raises herself on her toes, recalls the emerging art of modern dance as pioneered by the acclaimed performer and choreographer Isadora Duncan (1877–1927), whose work Henri avidly followed. In this work, he suggests that the relentless motion and change characterizing modernity are synonymous with the dynamism of life itself.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.


Perspective

With chin aloft, lips taut, and dark eyes meeting our gaze, she steps toward us on tiptoes, one arm swung wide. Poised, unabashedly naked, seductive, and self- possessed, Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion commands attention.

That air of confrontation accords with the way the painting—made quickly in the weeks prior to the 1913 Armory Show—has been understood by scholars: an American realist’s preemptive strike against European modernism generally and Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) specifically. But while Figure in Motion can be seen as an attempt to meet the Europeans on their own terms, it is also an expression of Henri’s sustained artistic and intellectual investment in the naked body.

In his 1912 etching Anshutz on Anatomy, John Sloan (1871–1951) pictures himself, Henri, and members of their circle at the New York School of Art absorbed by a 1905 lecture in which the painter Thomas Anshutz (1851–1912) uses clay to model musculature on a skeleton. This was a nod to the anatomy-centered teaching that Anshutz and Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) had pioneered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1880s, and that Henri pursued before coming to his own “unscienced but alive” approach, in which painting from a naked model became a sensual, even mystical, encounter.Quoted in Joseph J. Kwiat, “Robert Henri and the Emerson–Whitman Tradition,” PMLA 71, no. 4 (September 1956): 617–636, 619. Guy Pène du Bois (1884–1958) recalled Henri questioning the manhood of students who “could draw or paint this woman in all her glorious nudity as though she were a plaster cast, a thing less alive than a cabbage.”Guy Pène du Bois, Artists Say the Silliest Things (New York: American Artists Group, 1940), 86. Alice Klauber (1871–1951) transcribed a 1912 class in which Henri observed, “a nude young girl in the light is a mystery. I wish to know and could understand the reason for my great pleasure—the thing that causes an activity in my mind, to understand what I see and feel, and to be able to paint the sensation.”“The Teachings of Robert Henri: The Alice Klauber Manuscript,” in Bennard Perlman, Robert Henri: His Life and Art (New York: Dover, 1991), 144.

While these pronouncements are made in the macho idiom often associated with Henri, they mark a wider interest among both men and women in his milieu in the positive nakedness celebrated by Walt Whitman (1819–1892), America’s great “poet of the Body,” who understood nakedness as a removal of barriers, as figure and expression for honest encounter with the self and others. Sloan complained in a 1908 diary entry, “How few painters can show in their work, ‘I had a manly love or desire.’”October 25, 1908. Isadora Duncan (1877–1927), whose Whitman-inspired dances often revealed her naked form, was described by Henri as “one of the prophets.”Henri quoted in Ruth L. Bohan, “Robert Henri, Walt Whitman and the American Artist,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 29 (2012): 137. The anarchist writer and activist Emma Goldman (1869–1940), another strong, modern woman friend of Henri’s, urged artists to embrace the human form as “the nearest thing to us in all the world, with its vigor and its beauty and its grace.”Emma Goldman, “The Hypocrisy of Puritanism,” in Anarchism and Other Essays (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1911), 175–76. In a 1912 article on fashion, he celebrated the “gradual, if more or less unconscious, tendency in modern dress toward less concealment of the form.… We have got to get over thinking that the entire body is something to be ashamed of.”Marguerite Mooers Marshall, “Is the Modern Woman Beautifully Dressed? What Artists Say About It,” New York Evening World, March 15, 1912. From studio to stage to street, these figures pursued a frank, materialist embrace of the body.

John Fagg
Lecturer in American Literature, School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham


    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Figure in Motion, 1913
    Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69

    Urban Realism and the American Scene

    William Glackens (1870–1938)
    Bal Bullier, c. 1895
    Oil on canvas, 23 13/16 x 32 in. (60.5 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.59
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    The Grand Canal, Venice, c. 1898–99
    Watercolor and graphite on paper, 18 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (46.0 x 36.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.123
    Everett Shinn (1876–1953)
    Theater Scene, 1903
    Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. (32.4 x 39.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.136
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    Salem Willows, 1904
    Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 34 1/4 in. (66.7 x 87.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.120
    George Luks (1866–1933)
    Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park, c. 1918
    Oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 36 1/8 in. (76.7 x 91.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.87
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Sylvester, 1914
    Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 in. (81.2 x 66 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.2
    Rockwell Kent (1882–1971)
    Cranberrying, Monhegan, c. 1907
    Oil on canvas, 28 1/16 x 38 1/4 in. (71.3 x 97.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mr. Dan Burne Jones. Image © Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Rockwell Kent Gallery and Collection., C1983.4
    George Bellows (1882–1925)
    The Palisades, 1909
    Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 1/8 in. (76.2 x 96.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.10
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Figure in Motion, 1913
    Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69
    Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
    Slaves, 1925
    Oil on cotton duck mounted on board, 66 7/16 x 72 3/8 in. (168.8 x 183.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2003.4
    Walter Ufer (1876–1936)
    Builders of the Desert, 1923
    Oil on canvas laid down on aluminum, 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (127.3 x 127.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.174
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Chicago, 1930
    Watercolor, over graphite, on cream wove watercolor paper, 13 7/8 x 20 in. (35.2 x 50.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 1998.4
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Pip and Flip, 1932
    Tempera on canvas mounted on canvas, 48 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (122.6 x 122.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ., 1999.96
    Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891–1981)
    Between Acts, 1935
    Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 in. (100.3 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2009.1
    Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
    Bucks County Barn, 1940
    Oil on canvas, 18 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (46.7 x 72.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.135
    Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
    After Church, 1941
    Gouache on brown paper, 22 × 34 1/2 in. (55.9 × 87.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2015.2
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 44 1/4 in. (61.9 x 112.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Heirs of Josephine Hopper/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1999.77
    Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
    Bar-b-que, 1942
    Gouache on wove paper, 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1
    Walt Kuhn (1877–1949)
    Clown with Drum, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 60 7/8 x 41 3/8 in. (154.6 x 105.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.172
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Sierra Madre at Monterrey, 1943
    Watercolor with touches of wiping, over a charcoal underdrawing, on heavyweight textured ivory wove watercolor paper, 21 1/4 x 29 3/4 in. (54.0 x 75.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1994.18