One of the most difficult aspects of writing about art history is deciding which artists, of many thousands, should be featured. Obelisk works hard to find under-exposed artists, and occasionally I find an artist so obscure it’s like history was actually trying to blot them from the record. With that, let us introduce Armand Francois Joseph Henrion.
Henrion was born in Liege, Belgium on May 30, 1875. We know little about his education, but according to exhibition records he showed his work in Belgian salons and eventually moved to Paris, where he participated in many of the French Salons. His work, as you can see, is very specific, and to many, horrifying. Henrion’s oeuvre consists of close-set self-portraits, in the guise of a clown. He appears to be enjoying himself—smoking, grimacing, winking and laughing.
Let’s address the mime in the room. In contemporary society it’s terrifically popular to loath clowns. The pallad visage of clowns and jesters are tropes in horror media, and ‘killer clowns’ have even appeared in police reports in recent years. But while Henrion’s obsession got him blacklisted by history, at the turn of the century, clowns were not a hated class of performer. Henrion’s makeup and expressions imitated one of the most nuanced and popular clowns in history: Pierrot.
The character of Pierrot is the original sad clown, forever pining for the love of the beautiful servant girl, Columbina. Pierrot first appeared in Molière’s play Don Juan, in 1665, and popped up again and again for the next two hundred years, evolving into an archetype: the lonely fool, who masks his cynicism with indolence and humor. Henrion probably first saw Pierrot performed by the legendary French mime Paul Legrand.
“You know, this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear—but only in extreme anger!” — Charlie Chaplin
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Reed Enger, "Armand Henrion, Yes, he only paints clowns," in Obelisk Art History, Published August 27, 2017; last modified October 31, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/armand-henrion/.