Robert Henri: La Reina Mora

by Michael Andrew Marlais



While Henri was clearly entranced with Moreno, his portrait of her would provoke a certain sense of illicit pleasure from at least one Pittsburgh critic when the painting was shown at the Carnegie International in April of 1907. Blithely mixing metaphors, Raymond Gros described La Reina Mora for the readers of the Pittsburgh Leader:

We are no longer in America, where woman is queen; it is Spain, austere, wrinkled, smiling and amorous. There the visage with languorous eyes, provoking smile, the haughty bearing, do not suffice a woman to beguile; she must exhibit her naked arms, scarcely wrap herself in a shawl, ornament her bosom with a gorgeous flower; it is the Carmen of Bizet, passionately fickle and terrible; a living Dante's hell.[11]

Such scandalized praise suggests something of the genteel atmosphere surrounding art in this country in the early years of the twentieth century and foreshadows the reactions that Henri and his followers would evoke when they exhibited their work as The Eight at the MacBeth Gallery the following year.

Henri also completed a bust-length portrait of Moreno that he gave to the dancer as a gift. He mentioned it in letters to his parents, as well as to John Sloan, noting that he was "sorry to leave it behind" because it was "one of the best pictures that size I have painted." [12] A sketch and notes in Henri's record book indicate that the smaller portrait had the same greenish-gray background as the Colby painting, that in it the dancer wore the some necklace, the same bracelet and rings, the same flowers in her hair, but different flowered shawl. The artist's diary indicates that this too, was a "rapid piece of work," completed in just two sittings.[13]

Apparently Henri had planned to paint another large portrait, this time in a "dress that is built on the bullfighter plan, gold and white -- a brilliant rich thing."[14] But Moreno canceled several sittings for the portrait, finally saying that she would not schedule any more appointments until "she was more secure in her time." [15] It would appear that she never found the time. No other portrait of Milagros Moreno by Henri is extant, save La Reina Mora. The small portrait that he gave her has been lost while the second larger portrait was probably not done. Increasingly Henri turned his attentions to his friend, the bullfighter Felix Asiego, as well as to the Gypsies and other Spanish subjects that made this time in Madrid such a Henri productive one in his career. Only La Reina Mora remains today as testament to the encounter between Henri and Milagros Moreno. It is a tribute to both painter and sitter in an artistic collaboration of charm and grace, wherein the pride of the dancer serves as showcase for the mature portrait manner of Robert Henri.


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