In addition to his role as a leader of the Ashcan school and an influential teacher, Robert Henri is perhaps best remembered as an artist for his spirited portraits of children. In the present work Henri depicts a young girl, Francine, in the artist's classic style: a portrait of a single child shown three-quarter length and painted in dashing strokes of color.
Robert Henri's portraits were not commissioned. Instead, the artist chose his sitters based on the vitality and character they emanated. The success of these portraits relies on Henri's ability to interact with his sitter and translate onto canvas an image that transcends a mere rendition of a girl. "At home in New York City and especially on his various travels in the United States and trips to Europe, he would seek out 'types,' individuals previously unknown to him whom he would ask to pose for a portrait. These were non-commercial efforts executed simply because the character of the subject attracted him. He began to call these 'My People,' sitters who represented a cross-section of races and cultures...As he said, he liked to paint 'My People,' 'whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines Nature intended for them.'" (W.I. Homer, "Robert Henri as a Portrait Painter" in My People, The Portraits of Robert Henri, Seattle, Washington, 1994, p. 13)
After spending time painting portraits of young Hispanic and Native American children in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Henri visited the artists' colony of Woodstock, New York, in the summer of 1921, joining his close friends George Bellows, Eugene Speicher, Leon Kroll, among others. While in Woodstock, "Henri completed an extensive series of canvases, many of the young local residents: 'here I am painting principally children. There is a good crop of them available and some are excellent.'" (V.A. Leeds, My People, The Portraits of Robert Henri, p. 38) Francine is a masterful example of his works during this summer. In these works, Henri concentrated on color and on portraying the personality of his subjects, disparate from his later portraits of Irish children which are more formal. In the work, Francine looks to her left with her playful blue eyes as her rosy cheeks and pink lips convey a cheerful young girl. Henri's saturated palette, which includes red wisps in the girl's hair and the strokes of purple and yellow in her green shawl are distributed with vigorous brushstrokes resulting in thick impasto, distilling the essence of the girl.
Henri's painting technique profoundly underscores the visual impact of his portraits. He writes about his painting style, "It is not the way you put paint on, but what you ask of it that counts. Our style is the way you talk in paint. The hair is wonder in its gamut from materialism to idealism, from detail to bigness...The line on the head between the hair and the face is often a great opportunity for expression in a picture...The eye of a young person is clear cut, of an old person indefinite...Make the forms of a garment so that a trip through its hills and dales will be delightful...Clothes should have not limpness but the beauty of activity. Great things should be happening, currents should be running through." (The Art Spirit, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1923, pp. 249-57)
Echoing in the numerous portraits painted toward the end of his career are the artist's own words: 'If you paint children, you must have no patronizing attitude toward them. Whoever approaches a child without humility, without wonderment, and without infinite respect, misses in his judgment of what is before him...Paint with respect for him...He is the great possibility, the independent individual.' Emblematic of his universal and positive view of humankind, children had a particular spirit and sense of optimism that had powerful allure for Henri." (My People, The Portraits of Robert Henri, p. 41) Francine exemplifies the hallmarks that make Henri's portraits some of his most coveted work as iconic images of humanity.