Henry Hensche (1899-1992), American
Landscape study, probably Provincetown, 1980’s
oil on board, 7 ¼ in. x 9 3/4 in. (sight)
(framed dimensions: 10 ¼ in. x 12 ¼ in.)
Signed lower right: “H. Hensche”
This is a sweet, smaller-sized oil sketch by the noted teacher and Impressionist painter Henry Hensche. The painting is quickly executed, with a paint surface full of vitality and shimmering color. The painter’s energy comes through in the lively brush and palette knife work, as does his master’s eye for simplifying shapes and seeing form in terms of color – in this case emerald greens, ochers, yellows, mauves, violets, pinks and cerulean blues. This ethereal study has an on-the-spot immediacy. The paint surface is dry and unvarnished giving the paint an almost gem-like quality when the facets of the paint are seen in raking light. I am indebted to artist and teacher John Ebersberger, who studied with Hensche, for recognizing this sketch to be a painting of Henry’s backyard in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and dating it as likely done in the 1980’s.
Hensche was born in Germany but emigrated to the United States with his family when he was ten years old. Having settled in Chicago, Henry first attended the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied with the tonalist George Bellows. He went on to study at the National Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Students League of New York and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. It was at the Art Institute where Henry first saw in an exhibition the work of Charles Webster Hawthorne with its “bright and savage colors”. A big turning point in Hensche’s career came in 1919, when he traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts to attend Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art, an outdoors school of painting in that seaside town that had become a bustling art colony. The Cape’s natural beauty and luminous light was inspiring painters to seek it out at the turn of the 20th century. Provincetown’s remarkably clear light in the clean salt air and the reflective quality of the sand and water produced the brilliant color that was much coveted by artists. Even so, Provincetown in 1919 was much different from today; as Hensche put it:
“We didn’t come here for the Provincetown life… There were two or three hotels, lots of trees. I arrived with $50. I bought good paints. I lived and worked in cold studios. I didn’t eat. It’s a wonder I didn’t die.”
Henry had a natural affinity for Hawthorne’s use of color and light and his philosophy: “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 need.” By 1928, Hensche was working as Hawthorne’s teaching assistant.
After Hawthorne passed away in 1930, the Cape Cod School of Art closed. In the summer of 1935, Hensche opened the Cape School of Art, continuing to teach in the Hawthorne tradition and developing his own techniques to help his students learn true Impressionist painting – to refine one’s ability to see and to paint form and mass by getting the colors right. Henry taught his students to “see the world as a mosaic of color changes”. He continued to teach in Provincetown over the next fifty years and spent the cold winter months traveling and giving lectures and demonstrations.
Hensche married one of his students, Ada Rayner, in 1936 and they maintained a home in Provincetown for decades. Following Ada’s death in 1985, Hensche relocated to Gray, Louisiana. He married Dorothy Billiu, another former student and art teacher. Henry died in 1992, Dorothy in 2002.
Henry Hensche’s legacy lives on - both in his own paintings and in the work and continued teachings of the generations of artists whom he influenced under the Provincetown sun.
Hensche exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design (awarded Halgarten Prize 1930) and Columbia University (awarded Pulitzer Traveling Prize).
His paintings are in the collections of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Cape Cod Museum of Art and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art
He was a member of the Salmagundi Club and the Provincetown Art Association and a Fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters.
The painting is in excellent original condition with no craquelure or repairs. There is surface abrasion along the extreme edges and slightly rounded corners, all of which are covered by the frame rabbet. The paint surface is very stable owing to Hensche’s painting method (painted in one session) and the paint surface is pleasingly matte and unvarnished. The painting is clean and the colors are vibrant. The painting is signed at lower right in what appears to be ink, seemingly after the paint had dried. This was not unusual for Hensche – he signed his name in a variety of ways, whether paint, pencil or ink. He was known to do some unorthodox things such as signing his name upside down and signing his dog’s name (credit to John Ebersberger again). The painting is custom framed in a gold leaf frame by Guido Frames of Dedham, Massachusetts.
Henry Hensche, Provincetown study, oil on board, 1980's