Robert Henri: La Reina Mora

by Michael Andrew Marlais



La Reina Mora (the Moorish Queen) was the stage name of Milagros Moreno, an Andalusian dancer of some renown, according to Henri. [5] He had seen her perform at "Actualidades," a center for traditional dance in Madrid. He arranged to meet Moreno, apparently with the intention of painting her portrait. On the day he met the dancer, Henri himself chose the striking shawl she wears in the Colby painting, and sittings began the very next day, September 7, 1906.[6] Moreno is placed centrally on the canvas, proudly confronting the viewer as if aware of her ability to entrance and control an audience. Remarkably, all the brilliant color of the painting is confined to a relatively small vertical strip in the upper half of the canvas. Touches of crimson, blue, yellow, and green electrify the composition, which is otherwise relatively sober and reserved. Most of the painting is a study in whites and grays against the dark greenish gray ground -- which in turn sets off Moreno's jet black hair. Much as in Velázquez's portraits, the basic contrast of lights and darks establishes the tonal structure of the painting. But like Manet, Henri uses brilliant color to ingratiate the sober tonal base.

It is brush work as much as color that dominates this painting. Emulating, and indeed rivaling, both Manet and Velázquez, Henri shows off his technique. Scumbled dry paint, roughly applied to the surface, articulates the fringe of Moreno's dress. The floral pattern on the brocade is a rich bouquet of oil paint. In a passage worthy of Manet, the dancer's face, made up for the stage, appropriately and daringly reads as paint as much as skin. Henri had marveled at the make-up of Spanish women, whose "faces (were) often powdered to positive whiteness," and he uses that trait here as an excuse for some dramatic brushwork-[7] Henri was a master of fluid brush stroke, evidently in complete control of his medium. As it turned out he had a good deal less control over his subject.

Often attracted to dancers as subjects, Henri was deeply impressed with Moreno and her entourage. He wrote to John Sloan that she was "rich (for a dancer), thousands of dollars in costumes, etc."[8] He also wrote to his family of her wonderful apartments and her expansive, and expensive, wardrobe. He praised her "fine sense of pride and spirit," and noted that while she was always "kind in manner...on the stage she is almost savage in her dance -- a fierceness that is terrible." He spoke of sittings in his studio, surrounded by her "court," army officers, members of her company, and a somewhat mysterious companion, "a tall girl with white face and very black eyes and black hair always very simply and handsomely dressed."[9] The troupe had taken to calling Henri "EI Maestro," and he was not immune to such praise, telling his parents of his "sense of comfort and be so called and believed in as such." Henri spoke of seeing Moreno in the audience at a play entitled, appropriately enough, La Reina Mora: "She was dressed like a queen and acted like one with her distinguished looking lady in attendance sitting a little removed from her in the box." [10]


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