Henry Hensche (1899-1992)

Henry Hensche (1899-1992)

Henry Hensche was born in Germany in 1899, but came to America with his family when he was ten years old, later settling in Chicago. He began his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and also attended the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York, but the most profound influence on the direction of his art were the summer classes taken with Charles Hawthorne beginning in 1919. Established twenty years earlier, Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art drew artists from all over the United States to the dunes and fishing villages of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the master’s plein air demonstrations inspired students to define form and mass not with careful line drawing but rather through tones of color placed next to one another. Whether painting a figure, still life or landscape, his philosophy held true: “Remember no amount of good drawing will pull you out if your colors are not true. Get them true and you will be surprised how little else you will need.” [1]

[1] Hawthorne, Mrs. Charles W., Hawthorne on Painting (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), p. 21.

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An enthusiastic disciple, Hensche became an instructor at the school around 1928 and carried on Hawthorne’s principles after his death in 1930. Renamed the Cape School of Art, Hensche took the Provincetown tradition of painting in a new direction, combining Hawthorne’s color theory with the Impressionists’ credo of observing how the changing light affects those colors throughout the day. Where Monet had his haystacks, Hensche’s “block studies” helped his students interpret the subtle variations of hue on a block, brick or box, establishing a “light key” dependent on weather, time, season, and distance, and through this process gathering a true understanding of tonal relationships. This practice was later applied to all manner of subjects – landscape, figure, still life – and like Hawthorne, Hensche encouraged his students to use their palette knives when mixing and applying paint to prevent getting lost in unnecessary details. The strength of Hensche’s work lies in his effective use of color, light and form to transcribe what the eye sees firsthand, giving a sense of visual truth to his compositions.

Hensche continued teaching in Provincetown over the next fifty years, and spent the winter months traveling throughout the United States, giving lectures and demonstrations in California, Oklahoma and Louisiana. He was a member of the Salmagundi Club and the Provincetown Art Association, and held many solos shows while also exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and the National Academy of Design, which awarded him the Hallgarten Prize in 1930.  By the 1970s, he began offering lessons at Studio One in Gray, Louisiana, a school carrying on the tenets of the Provincetown tradition established by Dorothy Billiu in 1968, whom he later married after the death of his first wife, the painter Ada Rayner, in 1985. He spent the rest of his days in Louisiana and passed away in 1992. Today, Hensche’s artistic legacy remains in both the scope of his work and in the impact his teachings had on the generations of artists who flocked to his studio in a small fishing village on the tip of Cape Cod, hoping to learn to see for the first time. Those students would become teachers themselves, passing on the Provincetown tradition, and for artists who did not have the opportunity to work with him personally, a compilation of his thoughts and methods aptly titled Hensche on Painting was published in 1997.

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art, 1999; Robichaux, John W., Hensche on Painting (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997); Noelle, Alexander J., with additional contributors, The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011) (CT: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2011).  

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