Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2005 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Valerie Ann Leeds directly through either this phone number or address:


The Portraits of Robert Henri: Context and Influences

By Valerie Ann Leeds



In the sixty-six years since his death, the reputation of American artist Robert Henri (1865-1929) has alternately flourished and declined. A complex man of great influence and personal magnetism, the myth surrounding him has often overshadowed his work and his artistic contribution. The lifelong campaign he waged to provide emerging artists with an alternative forum for exhibiting their work and his role as the driving force of The Eight, the insurgency movement against the policies of the National Academy of Design, earned him renown as the mastermind of this artistic rebellion. Moreover, Henri, one of the most influential teachers in America, along with Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase, shaped a generation of painters through his inspirational teaching style. Yet the body of work he produced during a career of more than thirty years, represents a turning point in American portraiture.

Portraiture was Henri's primary mode of expression, and where he left his most enduring mark. Unlike the more established fashionable portraitists, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, Henri promoted the painting of life, building on a tradition of realism in portraiture established by Thomas Eakins. His refusal to beautify or focus on superficially pretty subjects earned him the epithet "Manet of Manhattan." Although strong parallels do exist between the early work of Henri and Manet, such as their shared approach to realism in portraiture, and strong Old Master influences, it could be said that Thomas Eakins provided an even more powerful model and was Henri's artistic mentor. It was in this manner of American realism that Henri fashioned his own course, away from the world of commissioned portraits and commercial success, instead preferring to rely on the income from teaching. He attempted to establish an emotional empathy with each sitter, and was drawn to subjects that evoked a personal response in him:

The people I like to paint are "my people," whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines nature intended for them. My people may be old or young, rich or poor.... But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man's way, the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language -- drawing and painting in color. [1]

The particular triumph of Robert Henri as a portrait painter rests with his ability to extract the spiritual essence and personality of a subject, without flattery, and translate it into paint.

Between 1892 and 1894, before Henri's signature style emerged, he had worked in an Impressionist mode, primarily painting bright landscapes, using a light palette and abbreviated brushstrokes. However, by the end of the decade, few works by Henri exhibited even remnants of the Impressionist style, though confusion about whether he should be categorized as an Impressionist or a Realist continued for some time. As late as 1904, he was still being called an Impressionist, though he had long abandoned the style in favor of dark, monochromatic single figure portraits.[2] The most pronounced influence on Henri's portraits.was exerted by the Old Masters -- Diego Velásquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, and Francisco Goya, whose paintings he had seen at the Louvre, the Prado, arid museums in Holland and Belgium. In 1898, while abroad, Henri wrote: "Here [Paris] I have done five times more work already than I did all last winter. The influences are the best -- I go a good deal to the Louvre."[3] Though his early portraits recall works by Velázquez and Manet, Henri began to define an individualized approach by abandoning the bright palette, and the broken Impressionist brushstrokes in favor of painterly brushwork, and the dark palette of Old Master portraiture.

By 1903, Henri's steady output consisted principally of portraiture. Drawing on the example of Velázquez, Whistler, and Manet, Henri painted sober portraits in a grand manner intended to impress exhibition juries. Dramatically dark portraits with intensely lit features mark these early efforts. The strength of these works derives from the minimal approach he used: plain, shadowy backdrops from which the figure emerges, with attention focused on the face. Henri's Self-Portrait, painted in 1903, followed these concepts, as did a series of portraits he painted over the next several years that includes family members, friends and associates. His first wife, Linda, was a frequent model, as were others from his social circle who sat for portraits including George Luks, John Sloan, Josephine Nivison (Hopper), Edith and William Glackens, Charles Grafly, James Preston, Thomas Anshutz, and Elmer Schofield. Members of his family and close friends served as models from time to time throughout his career, yet between 1903 and 1906, Henri used such sitters predominantly. An early portrait which proved to be critical to Henri's growing reputation was Lady in Black (Mrs. Robert Henri). [4] The work generated positive reviews and recognition for Henri as one of the preeminent portrait painters in America. One exhibition notice stated:

The natural first mention, and unquestionably the finest single canvas in the show, is the "Portrait of Lady in Black" by Robert Henri.... Dignified and strong, executed with a masterly power over technical difficulties, and a searching insight for character, this work is nearly, if not quite, the last word yet said in American portraiture.[5]

Henri's portrait of his wife presents her in black silk, leaning on a brown high-backed sofa against an even darker ground, highlighting only her face and a border of white lace. He became associated with painting portraits of woman in monochromatic schemes of black or white through a number of works he painted between 1902 and 1904.

During the first half of 1907, preoccupied with planning The Eight exhibition in addition to his regular activities, Henri produced few works. That summer he went to Holland to teach a New York School of Art class. After visiting Haarlem, Volendam, and Amsterdam, a new influence became evident in his work. The paintings he produced in Holland that summer reflect the direct influence of Dutch seventeenth-century masters, as seen in Laughing Child. The broad brushwork, a liberated and abundant application of paint, earth tones, and the dark backgrounds that Henri used during this period mirror the stylistic traits he saw in the portraits of Frans Hals and Rembrandt. He wrote from Holland that "the people here are certainly mighty interesting looking.... Frans Hals painted them -- men and women -- wonderfully and the pictures by Hals, Rembrandt, and many others...are a great treat to see."[6] Henri had not been initially impressed with Holland, but he soon developed a warm appreciation for the country and its people, and his stay there proved to be an important and productive time. He painted numerous small-scale portraits, many of children.

While in Haarlem, Henri's attention focused on two Dutch girls, Cori Peterson and another model, Martche, who were a marked study in contrasts. He described Cori: "all the time I have been here I have painted over and over again a little roistering white headed red cheeked broad faced girl -- I have done many heads of her, most of them laughing."[7] Laughing Child is the first of a consecutive series of more than fifteen portraits Henri painted of Cori. It was later shown in The Eight exhibition, and was purchased direcdy from the exhibition by the art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for her collection.


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