Robert Henri: American Icon



The following essay was written in 1998 by Valerie Ann Leeds and included in the catalogue for the Robert Henri exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from October 20 through December 16, 1998.


All art that is worth while is a record of intense life...

Robert Henri [1]


Most often identified as the organizer of the 1908 landmark exhibition of The Eight and the leader of the progressive movement that revolted against the National Academy of Design, Robert Henri made important contributions as a writer, teacher, and painter. A persuasive communicator his eloquence resonates throughout his written words and teachings, but most of all is expressed in his art. The far-reaching influence as a teacher he exerted and his efforts as an advocate for artists have, however, often blurred his contribution as a painter.

Personal expression underpins all of Henri's creative endeavors, but it is expressly manifested in his portraiture -- the mode of painting for which he is most widely recognized. His work follows in the realist tradition of Thomas Eakins, an artist for whom Henri had the greatest admiration and who he called "the greatest portrait painter America has produced."[2] Though he predominantly painted single-figure compositions that directly confront the viewer, Henri's work in this genre exhibits a wide range of diversity both in terms of subjects and stylistic influences. Yet in his art, Henri neither transcended the parameters of representation, nor embraced the modernist vision. His work was directly taken from life. As he noted, "I am not interested in any one school or movement, nor do I care for art as art. I am interested in life."[3]

This selection of works embodies Robert Henri's legacy as a painter and includes many of his most personal themes -- those with which he has been most closely identified: portraits of family members, children, dancers, and works executed in Spain, Ireland, and regions around America. This body of work is representative of the scope and diversity of his oeuvre and is indicative of his lifelong investigative approach to painting. Characterized by adventurous experimentation with different styles, his art largely falls into discrete chronological episodes which are, to a degree, determined by his peripatetic travels. He freed himself from the teaching and exhibition responsibilities that tended to eclipse his painting efforts during the year with lengthy summer sabbaticals that offered him renewed artistic inspiration each season. As a result of his democratic and humanistic views, his interest in depicting various types of people became a quest that led him to varied locales such as Monhegan Island and Ogunquit, Maine, La Jolla and San Diego, California, Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, Spain and Ireland.

Henri's initial artistic reputation rested on his landscape work, but around 1898 his focus shifted to portraiture as a unique portrait style of his own began to coalesce. He would, however, periodically return to landscape subjects particularly when stimulated by evocative surroundings, such as Maine, New Mexico and Ireland. As an artist, Henri felt obliged to focus on only one form of expression rather than split his attention between landscape and portraiture. He later expressed some ambivalence about his choice:

...l regretted there was but one of me, for...if there were two, I could then paint both the people and the landscape. As it is, there being but one of me, I spend six to eight hours a day in actual painting and the rest of the time getting ready for the work, or resting...I see most beautiful landscape under rare effects slide by. And this is a true loss to me for I have the feeling, and have had considerable experience painting landscape. [4]

Painted in New York in 1909, Marine with Rocks is a scene that appears to relate to earlier Monhegan Island works, though Henri painted very few landscapes on the large scale of this work.[5] Also unusual for Henri was returning to a subject from an earlier season. Generally his habit was to work from subjects at hand or to develop compositions from the recent past. Having first visited Monhegan in 1903, Henri was immediately captivated by the untamed wildness of the picturesque topography which he rendered in a number of oils. He repeatedly returned to Monhegan Island and urged other artists of his circle to visit there, notably Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Leon Kroll, Randall Davey and Edward Hopper, who all also produced memorable scenes of the austere and rocky terrain.[6]

More typical of work he produced in his New York studio was the portrait of Betalo Rubino, painted in December 1913. [7] Betalo, a dancer, became one of Henri's preferred models, posing for him as early as 1909 and for a number of subsequent years. Her dark coloring and dramatic looks resulted in a number of striking portraits like Betalo Rubino in which he often used a palette of yellows and browns with red accents. This portrait is notable for its brushy technique and the sense of free abandon in the sitter's bearing, as if she were in the midst of a fleeting movement. Henri noted in his record book entry of the picture that the subject was "in dance motion & dance costume."[8] The philosophy of portrait painting he advocated to his students and followed in his own efforts was to "work with great speed.... Get the greatest possibility of expression in the larger masses first. Then the features in their greatest simplicity.... Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying."[9] Henri excelled in rapidly capturing the character and gestures of a person usually in a single sitting which infused his compositions with great spontaneity.

In the earlier years, Henri had often selected family members and friends in his immediate sphere to pose for portraits, though by the later teens it became a less frequent practice. Nonetheless, his wife, Marjorie, and her sister, Violet Organ (known as Viv), continued to appear in a number of compositions between 1914 and 1916. During 1916, Henri also painted a number of reclining figures, both nude and clothed, including such studies as O, Figure on Couch (Marjorie) and Betalo Nude.. These reclining figure studies relate to Henri's masterwork -- his portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney -- the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art (Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, 1915-16, Whitney Museum of American Art). He worked on this major composition for an extended period beginning it in December of 1915 and completing it in June of 1916. [10] O, Figure on Couch (Marjorie) was painted in November 1916. and though the Whitney portrait was completed by that time, the figural sketch of Marjorie is related to it both in compositional structure and palette.

Viv was a favored model of Henri and she posed for him repeatedly throughout the years. Betalo Nude actually depicts the face of his sister-in-law. Though her coloring somewhat resembles Betalo Rubino, the delicate features are unmistakably those of Viv, as seen in the later likeness, Viv of 1919 [11]. The portrait of Viv was painted in Falmouth, Massachusetts where Henri had to go for a portrait commission. Viv was exceptionally close to the Henris and frequently accompanied them on summer excursions. During this time, Henri was executing a number of female portraits, both bust- and half- length nudes and clothed studies in similar palettes. As seen in Viv, his work during this phase appropriated a more colorful spectrum of brightened tones. Viv also appears in a pastel Henri reportedly executed of her posed at a piano at the old adobe Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. [12] Viv visited Santa Fe in 1916 and 1922, and the sketch could be from either year.[13]

Henri's peripheral role in the organization of the 1913 Armory Show and his influence as a progressive artistic leader had waned by the time he first began producing work in the Southwest. By 1914, with the emergence of the European and American modernists at the Armory Show who eclipsed the American realists, Henri came to be seen as part of the artistic establishment. Yet the work he generated during the Southwestern visits was some of the most original and inventive of his career. The advent of one of his most creative periods began with a trip to La Jolla, California in the summer of 1914.

California offered a rich array of paintable subjects who absorbed Henri's interest. He began painting in La Jolla in June of 1914 with a few landscapes, portraits of his wife, Marjorie, her sister, Viv, and some local Mexican-American sitters. Later he sought out and engaged Chinese- and Native-American models to pose for him, first in La Jolla and then in San Diego. As Henri recounted in a letter to his friend Helen Niles, he found the multi-cultural climate of California stimulating:

We have been having a good and busy summer. Have painted a good many Indians, Mexicans, Chinese & found it all mighty interesting...we have had a first rate time.... I've been working as usual very hard and have some things I think good..[14]

One of his outstanding efforts from the California trip was Chinese Girl with Fan, painted in La Jolla. It was a work that Henri apparently felt was superior since he entered it in a number of important exhibitions including his one-man shows held in September 1914 at the Museum of History, Science and Art in Los Angeles; November 1914 in New York at Macbeth Galleries; May 1916 in Syracuse; and February 1918 in New York at Milch Galleries. Critics concurred since Chinese Girl with Fan was repeatedly singled out as a portrait of exceptional character in a number of contemporary reviews.[15]

Henri's perceptive ability at characterization is particularly evident in his portraits of young children as seen in Chinese Girl with Fan. Through gesture and expression, he was most often able to capture the essential nature and nobility of subjects who sat for him. He observed about his portrait subjects that "their lives are in their expressions, in their eyes, their movements, or they are not worth translating into art," and that he was "not interested in these people to sentimentalize over them."[16] Upon his arrival in California, Henri's work underwent a sharp visual departure from previous efforts; most notable was a new use and unusual juxtaposition of brighter tonalities. Though he had been experimenting with color theories at least since his introduction to the color theorist Hardesty Maratta in 1909, it was not until this time that his investigations with color became more visually pronounced.[17] He was entranced by the unique quality of the California light as he related in a letter to his friends, the Roberts:

...its a new experience to us -- this West and summering in America is not usual -- what a star of luck led us westward!.... The color is fine -- its not like Spain -- they all think it is but it isn't...-- not so silver and gold in light.[18]

The vibrant coloration of Chinese Girl with Fan is typical of Henri's California palette which often incorporates bright blues, greens, oranges, yellows, and pinks, offset with a more abundant use of white. The appearance of these works differs from the deeper and more saturated hues he had used earlier and to which he would periodically return subsequently.

While visiting San Diego, Henri requested a tour of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition prior to its opening. There he met Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, who was an ethnologist from the School of American Archeology in Santa Fe serving as an exhibit organizer for the Exposition. Inspired by his acquaintance with Dr. Hewett, this 1914 California trip marked the genesis of Henri's interest in the Southwest and its regional culture. Through their initial encounter Hewett advanced Henri's interest in depicting Native-American subjects and extended an invitation to him to visit Santa Fe. Henri later accepted the invitation in 1916, marking the first of three prolonged visits there. However, it was in California that Henri first painted Native-American subjects which he would later avidly pursue in Santa Fe.

Henri returned to Santa Fe in the summer of 1917 which resulted in one of his most prolific and creative seasons. Initially he had a difficult time beginning his work until he secured a succession of compelling Native-American models. As he began producing portraits of these subjects, he expressed his first sense of accomplishment in that season's work in a letter to George Bellows, who had recently left Santa Fe after visiting Henri there. He wrote Bellows in November: "been doing some since you some good ones--26 x 32... Got a line of very beautiful Indian girls." [19]

These portraits attain a degree of psychological tension and an emotional connection between artist and subject that Henri continually sought in his portraiture and which is manifested in his most successful compositions. In the renowned article he authored for The Craftsman, entitled "My People," Henri outlined his artistic aims:

I am looking at each individual with the eager hope of finding something of the dignity of life, the humor, the humanity... I do not wish to explain these people... I only want to find whatever of the great spirit there is in the Southwest. If I can hold it on my canvas I am satisfied. [20]

Though he had traditionally emphasized the need for simplicity in the backgrounds of portrait paintings, he made a sharp departure from his usual approach in a string of colorful and ornate compositions from 1917.[21] Henri increasingly integrated Native decorative elements such as more varied costumes and backdrops into these images. He also began to explore the negative space around the model by offsetting the figure with boldly-colored geometric Native blankets in a number of mostly large-format, three-quarter-length portraits of female Native-Americans, as in Indian Girl of New Mexico. [22] Julianita, the model for Indian Girl of New Mexico, a San Ildefonso Indian, became one of his most preferred subjects and appeared in six portraits during the 1917 visit, and posed again for Henri in four additional works on his subsequent visit to Santa Fe in 1922. [23] Indian Girl of New Mexico, the last of the 1917 versions he painted of Julianita, most closely relates in structure to his first essay of her, Indian Girl of San Ildefonso, Julianita (1917, Indianapolis Museum of Art) in which she is posed in the opposite direction. The various representations of Julianita and the other ambitious compositions executed during the 1917 season represent the culmination of Henri's Santa Fe production.

In addition to Santa Fe, Henri was also particularly drawn to Spain where he made numerous visits every few years beginning in 1900. [24] During a trip there in 1912, he produced some of his most forceful and compelling canvases, including La Mora. Many gypsies, but also peasants and dancers, comprise the majority of themes he chose to represent while in Spain.[25] In the tradition of Manet, Velazquez, Ribera, and Goya, whose art he greatly admired, Henri had a special affinity for the gypsies he encountered in Spain. He observed singular qualities in them, as he remarked:

Always the hands of the gypsies are most interesting,...however labored the hand might be, the sign of their natural refinement shows through. I find myself admiring their hands. There is a look in their eye that is firm and unequivocal. The gesture of the eye, in fact, the gesture throughout is a gesture of all time.... I always feel when in the presence of a gypsy, however uncouth he may be, that I am in the presence of an aristocrat.[26]

Henri successfully realized undercurrents of realism and pathos in many of his Spanish pictures. Speaking of the appeal that these Spanish subjects retained for him, he related in a letter to his mother that: "There are some wild looking gypsies and some do here--there is a more dramatic strain in these people." [27] By the contemporary academic standards of the day, Henri chose to picture unconventional themes. He often saw beauty in people from all aspects of society. His views on the criteria for subject matter were that: "The subject can be as it may, beautiful or ugly. The beauty of a work of art is in the work of art itself." [28] Emotion and expression, characteristics that are commonly associated with the culture of Spain and its people, were qualities that drew Henri to particular subjects and which he attempted to communicate through his art.

After 1913, Henri did not visit Europe again until 1923. Lack of money, World War I, other travel plans, and various commitments, kept Henri from returning sooner. When he finally was able to travel there again, he visited Madrid and remained for an extended and extremely productive period; El Segoviano and Darita are among the results of this stay. The subject of El Segoviano was Florencio Rodriques, known as "Lagartija," who was one of the colorful characters Henri encountered there. "Lagartija" was Rodriques's nickname which means in Spanish, "small lizard." The Segovian man became attached to Henri and insisted on posing for him on a number of occasions, resulting in eight portraits. Henri reported that the old man was a singer and that when he posed for him he would always sing with a cigarette in his mouth.[29] The ever-present cigarette was included in seven of the eight portraits he painted of Rodriques. Henri first painted "Lagartija" in October 1923; El Segoviano is a later rendition from December 1924.[30]

Dorita is one of five compositions Henri painted of the young cafè dancer whom he thought to be about fifteen years old and who was the daughter of a former bullfighter. This picture is the most fully conceived of the variations.[31] While Henri did not work in series, he did often generate a number of variant images of the same subject, working on several canvases simultaneously, as in the case of the portraits of Dorita.[32]

El Segoviano and Dorita illustrate the type of work that Henri painted during the 1923-24 Spain trip. He employed more earthy tones than the somber coloration he had used back in 1912: his palette now included smoldering reds, warm ochres, and burnt umbers. El Segoviano and Dorita also exhibit more liberated brushwork than anything he had done earlier; the work of Jusepe de Ribera offers a paradigm that could have served as an inspiration. Henri seemed to particularly respond to the emotionality and melancholia of the Spanish temperament that is prominently displayed in endeavors such as La Mora, El Segoviano, and Dorita.

While Maine and Santa Fe were Henri's most preferred haunts in America, Spain and Ireland were his favored European destinations. Henri first visited Ireland in 1913, following the Armory Show. Marjorie was of Irish descent and the country had been recommended to him by his friend John Butler Yeats (father of the poet), who had often spoken "...of the something in Ireland found nowhere else." [33] Henri related that it was simply a "happy accident" that led him to the remote island of Achill in County Mayo, on the northwestern coast of Ireland when he picked it out by just looking at a map.[34] It was a fortuitous choice since the people and the landscape provided him with such a wealth of engaging subject matter. However, he apparently also was looking for a "painting ground that would provide a fuller outdoor life as well as painting interest."[35]

When Henri arrived at a new place, the different scenery would often entice him to paint landscape compositions. This particular region was characterized by expansive vistas and dramatic cliffs as seen in By the Turf Stack, one of a group of small oils on panel that he painted early in the first visit to Ireland. The panel likely depicts the fishing village of Dooagh, the subject that dominated Henri's landscape production in Ireland.

Captivated by the local residents, he found the children particularly alluring portrait subjects, and they comprise the majority of his Irish paintings. Among the portraits he painted on his first visit was Nora, a young girl who repeatedly sat for him and was his most frequent model on this trip.[36] As in this work, many of the early Irish subjects are rendered with a pure simplicity and brightness which may be partially due to the use of primary colors and a less complex palette.

Though he was enthralled with Ireland and its painting possibilities, he did not revisit there until 1924, but then returned every season through 1928. He then primarily painted the children of the isolated region in County Mayo, as seen in examples such as Smiling Tom, Blonde Mary, Charles O'Malley and Rosaleen. In a letter to his mother, he expressed what it was about these young subjects that so challenged him and maintained his interest:

I am not interested in making copies of pretty children. What I am after is the freshness and wonder of their spirit, the beauty that so often lies back of an awkward or even homely exterior until it is searched out. I enjoy the search.[37]

These later Irish portraits form a virtually distinct body of work within Henri's career. Although securing the vitality and spirit of the model is central to the conception of these works, they are also formal studies in color and composition. Henri was still interested in color schemes at this time but had adopted even more simplified palettes that now used only two or three basic colors.[38] Freely painted with loose brushwork, these portraits highlight the facial features and expressions of the young subjects, and exhibit little detail in the torsos and backgrounds.

As with Spain, Henri was also likely responding to the emotional nature of the Irish spirit in his art. He expressed the "hope that some of this emotion will find its way into what I tell of Achill folk in my portraits."[39] His close friend, the art critic Mary Fanton Roberts, noted that Henri selected representative individuals to convey the essence of the Irish people:

I cannot imagine anyone with any sympathy or receptiveness who would not recognize Ireland--her reticence, wit, naïveté, sadness, from Henri's paintings.... Because, after all, it is the people, individually, who create and express the nation and it is through Henri's individual portraits that I feel he expresses the lives of the people he knew so well.[40]

As seen in Henri's portrait work, the individual was representative and expressive of a larger segment of humanity.[41]

Robert Henri's importance to the development of twentieth-century American art is underscored by his efforts in organizing independent exhibition opportunities, championing younger artists, and shaping a subsequent generation of artists through teaching. Yet the most significant aspect of Henri's artistic legacy is his own artwork. Though adept at painting all genres, Henri elected to work primarily in portraiture using the individual as his expressive idiom. In The Craftsman, Henri summarized his humanistic outlook, asserting that the artist

...must seek for himself the people who hold the essential beauty, and...must eventually say to himself as I do, these are my people and all that I have I owe to them. [42]

Of the many individuals from diverse cultures that Henri encountered and who excited his interest, those that he captured in portraits he made into "his people."

Biographical information on the author:

Valerie Ann Leeds, Adjunct Curator of American Art at the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan and former curator of nineteenth and early twentieth century American art at the Orlando Museum of Art, earned her undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Rochester, and her graduate degree in art history from Syracuse University. Formerly curator of exhibitions at the Tampa Museum of Art, she has lectured and written extensively on a variety of subjects in American art, and also organized numerous exhibitions including the 1994 Robert Henri portrait retrospective. At the time of writing of the above essay, Ms. Leeds was writing her doctoral dissertation at the City University of New York on "Robert Henri and the American Southwest." She has since achieved her doctorate degree. Ms. Leeds would like to thank Janet Le Clair for her continued cooperation and Melinda Kervandjian and Dr. William H. Gerdts for their kind assistance.


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