Treasures from the Vault: Henry Hensche

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Henry Hensche was a German-American painter born in Gelsenkirchen, Germany in 1899, 1901, or 1902, depending on your source (we’ll come back to this). He emigrated to the United States in 1909 with his father and sister, arriving at Ellis Island, New York aboard the British ship S.S. Kroonland. The Hensche family eventually made their way to Chicago where their father worked in various factories.

Young Henry began taking art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago around 1918, but by 1919 he’d relocated to Cape Cod to study with Charles Webster Hawthorne. Hawthorne taught color theory and plein air painting, which Hensche admired as a continuation of Monet’s use of vibrant color. By the end of his career, Hensche was regarded as an unparalleled colorist in American Art whose subject matter tended to be still life paintings or portraits.

Now, let’s look at today’s treasure, Meal Time.

Against a dark background a woman with glasses, wearing a black dress, sits in her kitchen. She is surrounded by bowls, fruit, bread, and an urn.
Henry Hensche, b. 1901. Meal Time. Oil on canvas, 20th c. Gift of the James Hamilton Collection, 1943.09. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. The artwork label reflects only the information we know, therefore, his death-date and the year the painting was created are not included.

At first glance it’s just a simple painting of an elderly woman preparing a meal. However, it’s full of mystery! First, I mentioned above that Hensche was highly regarded for his use of vibrant color in still life and portraiture. Take another look at Meal Time. While the tomatoes at the bottom are red, most of this painting has been rendered in different shades of brown. Not the most vibrant or eye catching. Why would an artist create a painting so far removed from the style he’s known for?

When artists first begin their careers it’s not unusual for young painters to experiment with styles and techniques. The best way to determine whether or not a work was created early in their career, when they were still finding their artistic voice, is by checking its date – seems simple. But what if you don’t know the exact date that a work of art was created? That’s not uncommon, especially with a lesser known artist. This is the case with Hensche’s Meal Time. While most artworks can be attributed within a few decades, when Meal Time was donated to FWMoA in 1943 the donor didn’t know when the painting was created. So, how do we figure out the date? By putting on our art history hats and digging into Hensche’s biography.

But this biography quest unearths even more questions, starting with the simple fact of his date of birth. While most accounts, including the documents from Ellis Island, record Hensche’s birthdate as 1899, some people have recorded it as 1898, 1901, or 1902. No one knows for sure why there’s this dissonance in record keeping, but Hensche was never troubled by people not knowing his real birthdate and didn’t bother to set the record straight. Another fact that can be foggy to the superficial researcher is Hensche’s birthplace. There are a couple of documents that note his birthplace as Chicago, even though he didn’t arrive in the United States until he was around 10 (depending on which birthdate you choose). And Hensche was even less concerned about clarifying this fact – but he may have had a legitimate reason for doing so. Hensche began painting shortly after the end of World War I, and there was still a strong anti-German sentiment in the U.S. at that time. While Hensche had a German surname, since he came to America as a young child it’s likely that he lost his accent. In order to keep on good terms with potential patrons, it’s understandable why Hensche would have allowed people to assume that he was a home-grown young man from the Midwest, rather than a potentially dangerous German.

Now, even though Hensche’s early life is a little fuzzy, we can still look to his biography to figure out when he might have painted Meal Time. While at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918/1919, Hensche studied under George Bellows who was there on a short teaching stint. Bellows is a renowned American painter known for crafting scenes of New York City’s middle class, boxers, and idyllic scenes of his wife and daughters. When you compare Bellows’ work to Meal Time you’ll see a similarity in brushstroke and color palette. As a result, it’s safe to assume that Meal Time was painted when Hensche was his student at the Art Institute, or soon after his departure, when he likely would have been experimenting with Bellows’ techniques.

Even with our research and inferences we can’t be sure of an exact date for Meal Time, or even Hensche himself! But that’s not totally out of the ordinary. Yes, we can be fairly certain on dates surrounding famous historical paintings, especially when they’re commissioned by kings and queens, but for a regular old Joe from middle America we can’t always be sure. Does that decrease the value of the art or talent of the artist? No. It just shows how much mystery and intrigue can accompany paintings that, at first glance, are seemingly straightforward.

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