The Portraits of Robert Henri: Context and Influences

By Valerie Ann Leeds



In May 1908 Henri secretly married Marjorie Organ, an illustrator, before he went abroad (Linda, his first wife, had died in 1905). Marjorie, along with other women, served as models for a number of the full-length portraits he painted during 1909, 1910, and 1911. This cycle of portraits shows female figures elegantly garbed in shawls, kimonos, or long dresses that produce an attenuated effect. On May 10, 1909, Henri began a life-size painting of his wife, Marjorie in a Yellow Shawl. John Sloan went to visit him on May 13, and saw the " full-length of 'Marjorie.' It is a very good thing, the best thing he has painted of her in my opinion. A shawl wrapped around her, a perfect portrait and a work of creative imagination." [8]

Hardesty Maratta, an artist and theoretician, promoted the use of his paints in association with a theory of color usage, based on a scale of tonal gradations that would uniformly systematize the palette. Henri's diary notes reveal that Maratta called on him on June 7, 1909, with a set of paints for him to try. [9] Color theory became of immense interest to Henri, who was fascinated throughout the remainder of his life by visual effects produced from regulated color harmonies, resulting in a radical change in the appearance of his canvases from this time onward.

By 1913, although he was yet to produce much of his most original work, Henri found his influence and status waning within the art world. His marginalized role in the planning and presentation of the Armory Show and the overwhelming response generated by the innovations of the European artists' work shown there signified that he was no longer at the forefront of the progressive movement, nor a leading figure in the American art scene.

A trip to southern California in the summer of 1914 led Henri to a period of experimentation in his portraiture. The bright hues, variegated backgrounds, and a new sense of spatial openness infuse a look of modernity and freshness into these California portraits. He drove to California with Marjorie and her sister, Violet Organ, known as Viv. The two women posed for portraits, alternating with Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and other models Henri located. Painted in La Jolla, Viv in Blue Stripe is one of a group of portraits he painted of Viv and Marjorie in hats, and represents a departure from his previous work in the unprecedented impression of light and airiness created by the pale yellow and blue undulating background and the vividly patterned clothing. One critic said of Henri's California work:

His schemes of color are brilliant, daring, unexpected, even startling. Yet somehow they are almost always right. His broad spaces of green and blue and red...never clash, though they often become deadly enemies under a feebler hand.... I am speaking now of his portraits....[10]

The portraits he produced during the California trip elicited strong comment, and were critically recognized as some of the most creative and artistically distinctive work he had produced.

With the portraits Henri produced during 1914-16, the last conscious vestiges of Manet, Hals, Rembrandt, and Velazquez disappeared from his work, and this period marks the advent of more original portraits, free of historical persuasion. These years represent a second zenith in Henri's career. Though no longer in the forefront of new developments in contemporary art, he continued to explore and reevaluate the direction he pursued in his own work.

Kept exceedingly busy during the year with teaching and other commitments, new locations were important for Henri's artistic renewal in the summers, for him the most productive season of the year. In the summer of 1916, he first visited Santa Fe, returning the following summer, and again in 1922. His letters from there reflect his romanticized view of the spirituality and mystery of Native American culture.[11] Drawn to ethnic and cultural differences since his early trips abroad, Henri immediately developed a sympathetic bond with the Native people and the environment, a bond that directly translated into the Santa Fe portraits.

The portraits he painted in Santa Fe in the summer of 1917 were experimental and unusually inventive. Though he was unable to move beyond the essential confines of realism, in numerous portraits of this summer he began to assimilate Native decorative elements into the composition and focus more visual attention on the complementary space around the figures. In Gregorita with the Santa Clara Bowl, Henri included an example of Native black pottery. Intrigued with the culture and art of the Southwestern people, he also painted a number of portraits that incorporate the abstract ornamental quality of the Native textiles, shown either wrapped around or hanging behind the figures.

Monumental works became fewer among Henri's portraits of the late years. However, the masterpiece of his late career is a life-size painting of the dancer Ruth St. Denis in costume, painted in 1919. Henri's fascination with movement and form reflected a natural affinity for dance which brought him into contact with a number of noted dancers of the day, whom he engaged to model for him. Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance shows the dancer in a pose suggesting movement by the fluid sway of her body. He made numerous sketches for the painting and lavished attention on every detail:

I am painting a portrait of Ruth St. Denis, the great dancer. Have had three sittings and am to have 3 more next week -- it's a big piece of work getting on very well so far. She is in her dance of the "Peacock." The story is Egyptian princess very proud, etc. whose spirit is confined in a peacock. It is a very wonderful dance and she is very beautiful in it. Costume is naturally in the character and colors of peacock. [12]

The portrait of Ruth St. Denis engaged Henri's attention throughout the second half of February and the beginning of March. Though he had routinely finished even large works in a few days, he was still refining the portrait in April.

Between 1924 and 1928, Henri returned every spring or summer to Ireland, for extended stays after purchasing a house on Achill Island. For his remaining years, the children of the village of Dooagh, near where he lived, became his primary portrait subjects. The late portraits form a distinct and cohesive body of work within Henri's oeuvre. Through repetition of subjects, he explored formal and abstract ideas of color and compositional harmonies in a virtual shorthand vocabulary. As evidenced by Wee Annie Lavelle (Pet) and Tom Cafferty: The Fisherman's Son, the Irish portraits are defined by Henri's ability to rapidly capture the outward vitality, and genuine character of these models. Though the influences of Hals and Velázquez are no longer apparent in his final portraits, the qualities he admired in their work -- their superb technique and ability to reveal so much with so little through economy of brushwork, form the conceptual underpinning of his late portraits.

By the time of his death, Robert Henri had effected an enduring legacy through promotion of his ideals and his activities, but more importantly by the astonishing body of portraiture he produced. Known as an arch-radical and a rebel by reputation, from a late twentieth-century perspective Henri's portraiture now appears to fall squarely within the mainstream evolution of realism. Though often technically adventurous, his portraits never depart from representation. He remained more daring in the realm of theoretical and abstract ideas about art, which he passed on through teaching to the next generation. Though Henri had been resistant to contemporary changes in outlook, and was bewildered by the Armory Show, he ventured forward on his own path of artistic inquiry, which involved experimental ideas in the form of color and compositional design.

Though he limited his portraits predominantly to single figures, either life-size or bust-length, that directly confront the viewer, Henri managed to exhibit a wide range of diversity and originality in his work through constant self-analysis, innovation and the embrace of various stylistic influences. Not for some time, if ever, has any artist successfully achieved a comparable rank with portraiture.

A strong biographical undercurrent as well as his democratic view of humanity is reflected in Henri's portraiture. He recorded the world in which he lived by painting the individuals he found there, whether intimates, acquaintances, or the exotic "types" he sought in his travels. The psychological empathy he developed for each individual seduced him, and as a result he endowed each portrait with a spark of life and a convincing sense of the subject's uniqueness:

My love of mankind is individual.... Everywhere I see at times this beautiful expression of the dignity of life to which I respond with a wish to preserve this beauty of humanity. [13]


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