I first became interested in Robert Henri (1865-1929) at my first trip to the American Art Fair, an annual New York City show of American paintings for sale by a few top American art dealers. I can’t remember exactly which Henri painting caught my eye, whatever it was certainly left an impression. Based on his name, one would assume that Henri was French, but he was neither French nor even Robert Henri. He was Robert Henry Cozad when he was born in Ohio in 1865, and he changed his name for completely non-artistic reasons – to disguise his identity after his father ran into some trouble involving a neighbor’s death (1). It seems like Henri had a pretty wild early life.
With his new identity, Henri moved to the eastern United States and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He later also studied in France. Henri worked in multiple styles throughout his career, early impressionism giving way to realism and experimental styles around the turn of the century (2). He was influenced by and influential to prominent American artists at all times of his life. He taught at several different art schools and organized the seminal independent show “The Eight” as a reaction against the conservatism perpetuated by the National Academy of Design and its juried shows. The artists in “The Eight” eventually acquired the name “Ashcan School”, and many went on to become beloved American artists (3).
This painting is a portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), the sculptor, art collector, curator, and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is easily interesting enough to merit a post just for herself. If you look at Henri’s oeuvre, his many female subjects are typically very soft and feminine-looking, sometimes exotic, and often nude. Whitney is certainly exotic here, but she looks more like a young foreign boy than any of the other women Henri painted. The depiction is a great contrast to this very traditional portrait of young Gertrude by John Everett Millais.
If you’re interested in learning more about Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her museum, try The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoir by Flora Miller Biddle (Whitney’s granddaughter). It’s a great book, and this painting is on the cover.