Robert Henri – The Last Works

Robert Henri, Pet (Wee Annie Lavelle), 1927. Oil on canvas.

The last work, by any artist, is the most telling. In most cases, it encapsulates all that they have personally strived for. There is usually a brevity and power to the work that has taken a lifetime of study to achieve. Also, the artist is no longer interested in his or her career or what any person or group thinks of the work. There is a feeling of perfect freedom gained through years of reflection on one’s art.

I became interested in Robert Henri when I was a student at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. At that time I struggled with color. Not that I could not achieve the color of the object or flesh tones that were before me, but I desired a sense of color that spoke on a deeper and emotive level. I saw plenty of paintings that were well rendered, that exuded a sense of life, but the color was limited and did not appear to reach its full potential in the realm of realist painting. I wanted more.

My mentor, Deane G. Keller, presented me with a copy of a catalogue of a Robert Henri show at the Orlando Museum of Art entitled, “My People”. This gift from Deane was the beginning of my journey, a journey that leads to Henri’s color theory as well as my own personal journey in paint and the language of image. Color is at the center of it all. It is part of the materiality of the imagination- it is the mode by which the artist speaks, not words, but visions; not ideas, but “being” as such. Henri was to become my teacher.

I spent about 4 years examining the notebooks, letters and articles of Henri in the Yale University Beinecke Rare Manuscript Library. This archive held the intense studies conducted by Henri  in regards to color theory, compositional theory, the”permanent palette” as well as the various individual palettes for each painting. The only thing it does not contain is Henri’s Record Book. This Record Book lists every painting that Henri made referencing an identification number on the back of each painting. It also gives the location of each painting- to whom Henri sold the work to. It also identifies the names of the models and some notes about the process. This Book resides in the family collection managed by Henri’s grand niece, Janet LeClair.

I have traveled near and far to see Henri’s late works housed in many obscure small museums throughout the United States. In 1998, I painted a copy of one of the late Irish portraits- “Johnnie Manning”, 1928. This painting is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery and has never been on display in the 14 years I have been visiting this gallery. They also own a companion Irish portrait of a girl, “Little Girl”, 1928.

So you can imagine my excitement when I read about a Henri show encompassing the late Irish portraits at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. The show is entitled, “From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland“, February 11-May 13. The show contains a significant collection of the Irish portraits from the years 1913, 1924, 1926- 1928. Henri completed over 80 paintings a season and had every intention of returning in 1929 to continue his work but became ill after his return to the U.S. and died in 1929.

Henri expressed in 1928, in letters to friends, that he had finally achieved the expression of form that he was after- minimal technique, expressive color, advanced composition and an intensity of human feeling in the faces of the children he referred to as “my people”.

These portraits are unique in that they encompass Henri’s own journey exploring color theory. The 1913 portraits reflect Henri’s interest in the color theories of H.G. Marratta, who identified the relationship between musical chords and color. This system he incorporated throughout his life in various paintings including the Irish portraits. The paintings of 1924 use this theory of chords and triads of chords. The paintings of 1926 reflect Henri’s ideas of a permanent palette that could be used on several subjects alike. These include the palettes of NOV. 1, 1926 and SEPT. 17, 1926. In 1927 Henri still relies on the chord palettes but he begins to experiment with a new type of palette that he developed himself – 3 set against the compliment and 5 set against the compliment. These are the palettes where he felt he had captured something new, yet simple, that had similar characteristics to the chord palettes, but even a more limited range of color.

But the limitation added a new dimension, intensifying the color in a subtle way while remaining harmonious. The work of 1928 bridges the early work of 1913 to the late work of 1928. The late work has that unifying simplicity without sacrificing the emotive feeling for color. And this is what truly excited Henri. He felt he was on to something new and profound for his work. Henri gets beyond the Armory Show, and its European modernism, and discovers something “American” again that springs from within himself. He in a sense, comes back to himself and the confidence he felt prior to the Armory Show, which supplanted the “Whitmanesque” spirit of this country.

The balance between an intensity of color and harmonious unity redefine Henri’s portraits. I imagine this insight came to him in the presence of such beautifully simple people of Achill Island- so far from the modern world and deeply in touch with their inmost emotions. They are the people of the poetic lament, hardship paired with isolation and emotive insight. In such an environment, intense color would intuitively seek an innate harmony- color becomes an underlying intensity ever present below the surface of things.

In my next blog, I will discuss this last color theory of 1928 of Robert Henri.