Robert Henri and the 1915 San Diego Exposition

By Jean Stern



The San Diego Exposition initially lasted one year. Overall, the show was a small success. The total attendance for 1915 was a respectable two million. While the local newspapers gave considerable coverage to the exposition in general, the Modern American Art exhibit received only one descriptive article during the year. That article centered on Henri and illustrated two of his paintings (catalogue numbers 37 and 38). The reviewer termed Henri as the leader of a "new movement in art which consists of the recognition of the significance of truth and the development of a technique to express these ideas. . . ."[10] The article closed by informing the reader how to correctly pronounce Henri's name.

Of the forty-nine works exhibited and offered for sale in the Modern American Art exhibit, none were sold (see appendix). The backers of the exposition decided to extend the fair through the year of 1916 and were compelled to promote a "Forty-Niner's Camp" attraction consisting of saloons and amusement halls as a drawing card to boost attendance. Since the Henri exhibit had been planned for one year only, the exposition arranged for a replacement display of a traveling exhibit of European Old Masters works, some of which had been at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Under the initiative of Everett C. Maxwell, Director of the Museum of History, Science and Art in Los Angeles, the artists agreed to allow the show to travel to Los Angeles early in 1916, and from there to Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Pullman and Spokane, Washington; respectively.[11] Prendergast retrieved his works after the Los Angeles showing,[12] otherwise the show remained intact.

The Panama-California Exposition of 1915 accounted for about a year and a half of Robert Henri's long and productive life. His California sojourn produced several important events: his role in the Panama-California Exposition, his introduction to Dr. Hewett, and a one-man show at the Museum of History, Science and Art in Los Angeles in the Autumn of 1914.[13] Yet, there is practically no trace of any of these events in the major bibliography on Henri.[14] Henri found Dr. Hewett's friendship very rewarding and he spent several summers (1916, 1917, and 1922) in New Mexico at his invitation. While there, he participated in the local art activities and his influence on the artists there and in Taos may have been quite substantial. By contrast, his influence on San Diego artists appears to be minimal as he was there for only a summer and painted just two or three works.[15] At the same time that Henri and his colleagues were exhibiting in the Modern American Art display, there was also a California Art Club exhibit in another building at the fair. Although the Henri exhibit undoubtedly drew the attention of the artists in the California Art Club, there is no indication that Henri took any active role with the club or any of its members.

Robert Henri had attempted a comeback for American art as he saw it, against the effects of the Armory Show. He took complete responsibility for the Modern American Art exhibit. He had planned several successful exhibitions in the past, but the situation was different in San Diego. The Armory Show was fresh on his mind and his conflict with Davies needed reconciliation. Henri assumed full control; he was uniquely in charge of all aspects of the show. He single-handedly selected the artists who would exhibit. He planned and allotted the wall space equally among the exhibitors. He ordered the proper room decor and decided on the total number of works to be shown. He even decided what color the walls of the exhibit room would be. However, to Henri's credit, his dictatorial powers ended with the physical aspects of the show. The specific works were to be selected by the artists themselves, with, of course, no juries and no prizes. He had set the stage in San Diego for the return of American art after the European invasion of the Armory Show. His half-hearted invitation to Davies tempts the speculation that Henri wanted him there to grace his triumph. Yet Henri's timing appears to have been all wrong. The overwhelming competition from the San Francisco exposition drowned out the appeal of the smaller fair. The similarity in names of the cities and the expositions worked to the disadvantage of San Diego and even the artists themselves confused the two expositions. The Henri exhibit received almost no attention and produced no significant impact on American art.

After 1915, Robert Henri's prestige and influence was still quite strong and effective within his circle. Henri did not lose any ground as a result of this show, yet to his detriment, he had failed to keep up with the expanding qualities of American art. In retrospect, Henri is still an important figure in American art, but his importance peaked in the first ten years of the twentieth century, it was traumatically eroded at the Armory Show and ignored in 1915.



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