Artist: Robert Henri
Commentary by Dennis R. Perry
Associate Professor of English
Robert Henri, an American painter and teacher, was raised in Denver, Colorado and New York, studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and at the Academie Julian in Paris. He was influenced in his dark-toned style and broad brush strokes by Velazquez, Hals, and the early Manet, and he played a key role in introducing and championing modern art styles in America at the turn of the century. In 1900 he began teaching at the New York School of Art, and in 1908 established his own school, helping young artists struggle against the conservative New York art establishment. He is most famous in helping organize an Exhibition of Independent Artists who became known at the “Eight,” or “Ash Can School,” becoming the center of the New York art world during the first quarter of the 20th century. The Eight include William J. Glackens, George Luks, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn, all characterized by the bold brushwork and spontaneity in their work. As an influential teacher he left an impressive legacy of helping 200 students find successful careers in art, including Mormon artist Minerva Teichert. In fact, as much as any of his students, Teichert took literally Henri’s ideas about bold brush strokes and spontaneity. His ideas about teaching art were collected in a volume of his lectures entitled The Art Spirit (1923).
An avid theater goer in New York he asked aspiring young actress Fay Bainter to pose for him, just as she had made a name for herself. He painted her twice, both in her everyday dress and in an exotic stage costume. Fay Bainter is probably best known for being the first person to be nominated for both Best Actress (White Banners) and Best Supporting Actress (Jezebel) in the same year, 1938, eventually winning for her supporting role as Aunt Belle in Jezebel. In fact, in over half of her 39 films she played a mother. This painting captures the younger actress, sophisticated and gentle at the same time. Bainter’s persona was an unusual combination of earthiness and wit. Henri captures here the pleasant calmness in Bainter that would be the hallmark of the motherly film roles that would make her most famous.