In the summer of 1900, Robert Henri returned from a lengthy stay in Paris and rented a house in New York City on East 58th Street overlooking the East River. By June 1901 he had established a studio in the Sherwood Building on the corner of West 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, and in September he began to live there. At this point in his career, the artist occupied himself with painting cityscapes similar to those he had recently executed in Paris. In March 1902 the dealer William Macbeth encouraged him to paint New York street scenes to be included in a solo exhibition scheduled for the following month. Henri hoped to produce a painting for the occasion that would achieve a degree of critical acclaim comparable to that of La Neige [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Robert Henri, Snow (La Neige), 1899, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo by Gérard Blot, a snowy view of the rue de Sèvres in Paris that had been purchased for the Musée du Luxembourg in 1899.
Henri alluded to Snow in New York in a diary entry of March 5, 1902: “Painted snow storm. street. high houses with well of sky between. gray looming sky. brownish houses near horizon. figures. red note electric street lamp. snow.” He identified the exact subject in his Record Book: “N.Y. down E. on 55th St. from 6 Ave. Brown houses at 5 Ave. storm effect. snow. wagon to right.” Leslie Katz has aptly described the scene as representing “the dingy, overcast mood of one of New York’s brownstone corridors, the street a thick slush of soiled and rutted snow, a sodden atmosphere animated and cheered by a lone horse-drawn wagon and two people (red splotches), under a patch of sky.” Henri’s urban snowscape is fundamentally different from those by impressionist artists of the same period (see, for example, [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Katrin S. VIetor, in loving memory of Ernest G. Vietor, 1960): it depicts an unspectacular side street in the vicinity of his studio, rather than an imposing view of a major avenue; there is nothing narrative, anecdotal, or prettified about the image; the straightforward, one-point perspective composition is devoid of trivial details; the exceptionally daring, textured brushwork (especially noticeable in the center foreground) has more in common with a preparatory oil sketch, or pochade, than a finished oil painting; and the somber palette creates an oppressive atmosphere. Although more conventional artists exploited snow for its picturesque quality, Henri’s snow is streaked with mud and gravel, a phenomenon that he emphasized in his thumbnail sketch of the painting in his Record Book. His fluid technique conveys a sense of energy and immediacy, and reflects an extensive firsthand knowledge, gained primarily through Henri’s numerous excursions to Europe, of the art of Frans Hals (Dutch, c. 1582/1583 - 1666), Diego Velázquez (Spanish, 1599 - 1660), and Edouard Manet (French, 1832 - 1883). The gloomy ambience, enlivened by only a few touches of red, is indicative of the artist’s essentially realist proclivities.
Those who reviewed the 1902 Macbeth Gallery exhibition evidently did not single out Snow in New York for discussion, but they did react to Henri’s bold technique. Arthur Hoeber complained that “not infrequently Mr. Henri leaves off where the real difficulties of picture-making begin.” The critic Charles FitzGerald wrote: “It is a curious thing that a certain mechanical polish is commonly associated with the idea of finish, and from a few remarks dropped by casual visitor’s [sic] to Mr. Henri's exhibition, it is evident that his landscapes are regarded by many as sketches, or thoughts half-expressed.” FitzGerald went on to defend the artist by noting that a couple of paintings in the show were “worth all the hands that ever niggled over a surface for the sake of explaining and polishing what from the first conception was meaningless and worthless.” Some critics deemed Henri “a skillful handler of the brush,” and found his work “vital and strong.” Nevertheless, Snow in New York was one of only two pictures that sold (the second has not been identified).
Because of its literal objectivity, Snow in New York has traditionally been interpreted by art historians as exemplifying Henri’s penchant for matter-of-fact reportage of urban subjects. Such a view is reflected in Milton W. Brown’s characterization of it as “a paradigm of the new realism in American painting of the turn of the century that became known as the Ashcan school.” In his discussion of the closely related Street Scene with Snow (57th Street, N.Y.C.) [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Robert Henri, Street Scene with Snow (57th Street, N.Y.C.), 1902, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Bruce Chambers convincingly demonstrates that Henri’s urban views are strongly influenced by the symbolist aesthetics to which he had been exposed in Paris. Like the symbolists, Henri sought to capture a subject's intangible mood or essence—what he called the “effect”—rather than a literal transcription of nature, an objective he achieved during the creative process by relying on memory and mental imagery. Nevertheless, Snow in New York is a realist image that looks back to Alfred Stieglitz’s 1893 photograph Winter-Fifth Avenue [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Alfred Stieglitz, Winter—Fifth Avenue, 1893, carbon print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, and forward to George Bellows’s Steaming Streets [fig. 5] [fig. 5] George Bellows, Steaming Streets, 1908, oil on canvas, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton for the Preston Morton Collection.
Discouraged by the fact that his New York cityscapes failed to sell and increasingly attracted to figurative art, Henri ceased to paint urban subjects and resolved to become a portraitist late in 1902. In retrospect, the expressive intensity and painterly fluency of Snow in New York qualify it as one of Henri’s most accomplished works from this early period in his career. It exemplifies his advice that students should strive to capture “the romance of snow-filled atmosphere and the grimness of a house.” Such paintings give credence to John Sloan’s opinion that Henri’s landscapes and cityscapes are “too little known” and “among the finest things he did,” and it is fitting that Sloan, William Glackens (American, 1870 - 1938), Everett Shinn (American, 1873 - 1953), and George Luks (American, 1866 - 1933) all became distinguished painters of a genre their teacher had abandoned.
September 29, 2016