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.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

13 thoughts on “Robert Henri – The Last Works”

  1. Hi Judith, I enjoy reading your findings from your researches. I especially love the renderings of Robert Henri. Thank you.

  2. Hello, we have a painting of a boy in a bluish-grey cap and wearing a black coat. It is signed “Robert Henri”, but we’re wondering if it’s authentic or not. Do you know where on the back of the painting we should look for a reference number? We don’t see any numbers on the actual back of the painting, but there do seem to be numbers on the back of the canvas where it is wrapped around a wooden frame. (But we can’t make them out). Also, we are in the Washington, DC area. Do you know of anyone in the mid-atlantic area who could take a look at the painting and give us an answer? Thanks for any help you can provide! Shari

    1. The piece sounds like an authentic Henri. His personal reference number is usually quite large, painted directly onto the back of the canvas. Because it is under the stretcher bars, Henri may have cut down the canvas to change the composition. So don’t worry about that. The person to ask is Henri’s grand niece, Janet LeClair. She lives in New York City and has in her possession the “Record Books” that are used to authenticate all of his work. Henri was an avid record keeper. He recorded his color palettes he used for every piece; when he began and completed it; competitions and galleries where it had been displayed. And finally, who owned it and that history.If it has a large reference number on the back, chances are it is authentic. When you contact Janet LeClair, reference this number. If you can’t seem to locate her, you can contact the Spainerman Gallery, NYC. And if that is not feasible, contact me again and I can get you in touch with someone that has done extensive reseach on Henri and can help you.Keep in touch. It is very exciting and I would love to see an image of the painting. His style is very distinct and I may be able to narrow down the year it was painted based on the color choices and my experience from working in his archive for many years.

      Best Regards,
      Judith

      1. Thank you so much for your reply. I believe that Janet LeClair, unfortunately, passed away several years ago. (The obituary is below). Could you put me in touch with the other expert you mentioned? Thank you again! Shari Schwartz p.s. I will try to take a photo of the painting and email that to you—but I am taking my son on a trip to New York tomorrow with his flute studio, so I won’t get to it for a few days.

        BRIDGEWATER — Janet J. LeClair, 83, passed away Tuesday (June 26, 2007) at the home of her daughter in Charlotte, N.C., as a result of a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
        Born Janet Jacobsen, daughter of Lloyd and Catherine Sheerin Jacobsen, on Feb. 4, 1924, she received full scholarships to Saint Cecelia’s Preparatory School and Caldwell College. Graduating valedictorian from both schools, she was awarded medals of honor in English, drama and philosophy at Caldwell College.
        She was a lifetime member of the National Arts Club in New York City, where she served on the Board of Governors for several terms. She was a member of Harker’s Hollow Golf Club, a member of the North Hunterdon Board of Education, Caldwell College Alumni Association and St. Ann’s Church in Hampton, and St. Matthew Church in Charlotte, N.C.
        After raising her children, she consulted and lectured on the art and intellectual contributions of American painter Robert Henri, her uncle, giving charitable support to many institutions, including the Robert Henri Museum in Cozad, Neb., and the National Arts Club in New York City. In the 1990s, she traveled as a member of an international contingent of goodwill ambassadors from the American art community to the Soviet Union.
        Her longtime friendship with American portrait painter Margery Ryerson, who was Henri’s last surviving student and co-author with him of The Art Spirit, caused a resurgence of interest in her art. Her vision launched a retrospective show of Ryerson’s work in 1999.
        She is predeceased by her beloved husband, John Charles LeClair; and brothers, Theodore L. Jacobsen and Robert J. Jacobsen.
        She is survived by her four children, Michelle Rosemary LeClair and spouse, George E. Baird Jr., Janet Marjorie LeClair and spouse, John C. Bragg Jr., Craig Stephen LeClair and spouse, Zaurie Zimmerman, and Jack Baldwin LeClair. She is also survived by 11 grandchildren, John, Mathew, Lauren and Michael Bragg, Alyson, Connor and Catherine Baird, Jacqueline and Abigail Baldwin LeClair, Justin and Marie LeClair; and several nieces and nephews.
        The family would like to thank Hospice of Charlotte, Partners in Care and loving caregivers Rosa, Alice and Mary for their devotion to Mom.
        A Mass and burial will take place 10 a.m. Monday at St. Ann’s Church in Hampton. A memorial Mass in Charlotte, N.C. will be held at a later date. The viewing will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Martin Funeral Home, 1761 Route 31, Clinton. To send online condolences or for more information, please visit http://www.martinfh.com.
        In lieu of flowers, make donations to Alzheimer’s Association of Western Carolina, 3800 Shamrock Drive, Charlotte, NC 28215 or Hospice of Charlotte, 1420 E. 7th St., Charlotte, NC 28204.

      2. Dear Judith,

        This is Sid Schwartz, husband of Shari Schwartz, with whom you have had a recent e-mail correspondence concerning a potentially-original Robert Henri painting. We will be glad to send you an image of the painting, but it is not clear from the “attentive equations” website how to attach an image to an e-mail to you. Can you please let us know how to do this?

        Thank you!

        Sid Schwartz

        1. Dear Shari and Sid,

          I looked closely at the images you sent of the boy. There are certain elements of the image that are not characteristic of Henri such as the pose- He mainly chose frontal poses of childnren, although there are some that diverge from this. Secondly, the color is not as striking as a typical Henri. Thirdly, I could not see a number on the back of the canvas.

          There are also, characteristics that are very Henri- The main one being that the boy appears to be Irish( and of the right time period) and the brevity and accuracy of the drawing. I bring up the Irish element because Henri spent the last years of his life in Corrymore, Ireland. He painted all the children that could possibly pose in the village. This was his passion. He also painted with more brevity in the last years. Although, not seeing it in person, I would say that he would have probably continued to paint on this canvas. It appears to be more of a block-in. The eyes are too brief and indefinite for his tastes.
          My gut feeling would be to continue pursuing its autheticity. I think there are enough Henri-like elements to continue. There is a scholar of Henri that recently put together a show of all of Henri’s Irish portraits. The show was at Syracuse University at their gallery. Her name is Valerie Ann Leeds. She was at the Orlando Museum of art for many years and is presently, I believe associated with Syracuse University. I have the catalogue from the exhibit and will get back to you if you need more specifics.

          The second person you could try is Mark Aronson, curator at the Yale University Art Gallery. When I was living in New Haven, he allowed me to do a copy of a Henri, late Irish portrait called “Johnnie Manning”. That is how I know so much about the identification numbers of Henri. On that portrait was a number that I then took down and subsequently, looked up the color palette that he used in the archive housed at the Bienekie Rare Manuscript library. I easily found it in his late notebooks.So when I painted the copy, I had all of Henri’s notes to himself as well as color samples of the pigments he used. That project gave me so much insight into Henri that I still use those studies to explore his color theory today in my own work.

          I hope this helps. Valerie Ann Leeds could also identify for you which relative of Henri’s has the Record Books. All of his work is authenticated using these books.
          One last thing I wanted to add- Henri tended to use only a couple of size canvases for children- 20″X24″ and 26″X32″. Not to say he did not use other sizes, but he was really comfortable with these sizes because he used a compositional system called Dynamic symetry and another earlier and later in his life called rabatement.These sizes have a special relationship between the sides.

          Judith

  3. Hi there my name is Jonathan barbato I have a painting of a young women who appears to be from the 20’s I was told it was a Walter Baum but I don’t think it is the problem is is that the painting is unsigned . It would look more like a Robert Henri I was wondering if you could take a look at it via email. Thank you Jonathan

    1. Jonathan,
      I would be happy to look at it. If I don’t recognize the artist maybe we could narrow it down to a certain school of painting i.e. Boston, New York, Cincinati,California.If you have an idea such as this to go on it might lead to more clues. Judith

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