Robert Henri, the inspirational leader of The Eight, was born Robert Henry Cozad on June 24, 1865, in Cincinnati. At an early age he moved with his family to Cozad, Nebraska, a town his father founded. In 1886 Henri enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, where he studied under Thomas P. Anshutz, Thomas Eakins’s former pupil and successor. He studied at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1888 to 1891 but was more influenced by the Old Masters and Monet than by academic painters.
In 1892 he started teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, where he gained a reputation as a vivacious and passionate teacher in the Eakins tradition and an inspiring intellectual. He soon acquired a following of emerging artists, including the Philadelphia newspaper illustrators William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan, the core of the group that would later form The Eight. During a trip to Europe with Glackens in 1895, he shifted away from impressionism to the realism of Hals and Velàzquez.
In 1900, Henri moved to New York, where he became an extremely popular teacher of such artists as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. He also became a strong advocate of adventurous styles in painting, particularly boldly slashed scenes of urban life and portraits of the urban poor. He traveled extensively during the summers from 1906 until 1913, painting portraits in many parts of the world including Holland, Ireland, and Spain. In 1907 Henri broke from the National Academy of Design to promote independent artists; he was the driving force behind the 1908 exhibition of The Eight and the 1910 “Exhibition of Independent Artists” in New York. Henri’s book, The Art Spirit, published in 1923, also had a tremendous influence on young artists throughout America and Europe. While continuing to teach, Henri participated in progressive exhibitions in New York until his death on July 12, 1929.