How to ‘Live Life Living’ — Robert Henri’s Prescription for Discovering the Creative Spirit Within

Hint: It’s a Path for Everyone, Not Just Artists

Jul 3 · 4 min read
Robert Henri (1865–1929), Landscape Sketch at Escorial (1906), oil on panel, 19.1 x 24.1 cm, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME. The Athenaeum.

Most people live life dying. It shows in their attitude, their response to circumstances and ultimately in their physical health and appearance. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There is an alternative, an open secret, which is also the key to a happy and fulfilling life: Live life living.

I became aware of this perspective from Robert Henri’s wonderful book, The Art Spirit, which is one of the most helpful and influential books I’ve ever read. An inspired and gifted teacher, the painter Robert Henri was born 154 years ago on 6/24/1865. He was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of American Realism and a founding member of a painting collective known as “The Eight.”

Lady in Black Velvet,” 1911. Robert Henri

I first learned about Henri several years ago from a neighbor and friend, an 80-year-old sculptor who kept a tattered copy of The Art Spirit and offered to loan it to me during one of many spirited conversations we shared in the pristine island-country north of Seattle. She lived in a low-profile waterfront home designed by her architect husband to fit harmoniously into the crescent shape of the cove they’d purchased long before property values there climbed to gentrification levels. I had learned by this time that it’s usually artists who find the good cheap places where you can live well in a natural setting without having to give up your work in order to afford it. Although it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find hideaway properties like that, I felt blessed to be part of such a community when I needed it most.

Whenever I meet anyone who walks their talk, embodying the principles they purport to live by, I pay attention. I try to learn as much as I can from them. I want to know, How does one get to be like that?

Fortunately, my 80-year-old friend was among the people I knew there, and I was often a guest in her home, which was filled with her own sculptures (she was fond of creating birds) as well as paintings by her late husband and other artists whose work she loved.

One of the most youthful people I have ever known, she was living proof to me that age really is just a number. Clearly, she was someone who had lived life living.

Whenever I meet anyone who walks their talk, embodying the principles they purport to live by, I pay attention. I try to learn as much as I can from them. I want to know, How does one get to be like that? She gave a lot of credit to two things — the importance of doing your own work on a regular basis and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

Robert Henri (1865–1929), The Blue Kimono (1909), oil on canvas, 195.6 x 94 cm, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, FL. Wikimedia Commons.

If you check out reviews for Henri’s book online, you will find a common theme — it’s not just a book for painters, though it contains technical guidance they will find useful. It’s a book for anyone who wants to live a richer and happier life. In the end, it’s about connection to spirit. Connection to source. Make that connection, and you find the secret to life, the key that makes it possible to connect with the ever-present now, to “life life living” instead of the daily dying most people settle for. That quiet desperation Thoreau spoke about.

The Beach Hat, 1914, oil on canvas, The Detroit Institute of Arts

You don’t have to be a painter, sculptor, poet or musician in order to live a creative life. If your goal is to live fully, to remain youthful in spirit all your life, here are five ideas you’ll find in The Art Spirit, which offer a bit of motivation, inspiration, and guidance.

  1. “Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them.”
  2. “A man must become interesting to himself and must become actually expressive before he can be happy.”
  3. “I have no sympathy with the belief that art is the restricted province of those who paint, sculpt, make music and verse. I hope we will come to an understanding that the material used is only incidental, that there is an artist in every man; and that to him the possibility of development and of expression and the happiness of creation is as much a right and as much a duty to himself, as to any of those who work in the especially ticketed ways.”
  4. “Those who express even a little of themselves never become old-fashioned.”
  5. “Your only hope of satisfying others is in satisfying yourself. I speak of a great satisfaction, not a commercial satisfaction.”

If you are looking for a way to live a happier, more authentic life, Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit is a good place to start. It’s not for artists only. That’s a promise.

Andrew Hill

Written by

Award-winning writer with a background in talk radio, newspapers & TV news. Short Stories, Essays, Novel. On Twitter @jazprose

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