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. 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.” 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.”
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.’” Isadora Duncan (1877–1927), whose Whitman-inspired dances often revealed her naked form, was described by Henri as “one of the prophets.” 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.” 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.” From studio to stage to street, these figures pursued a frank, materialist embrace of the body.