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 Portrait of a Girl Henri depicts a young Irish girl named Mary Lavelle 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 the result of costly commissions. Instead, the artist chose his sitters based on the vitality and character they emanated. The success of these portraits, such as the present painting 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)
Henri's painting technique profoundly underscored the visual impact of his portraits. Henri 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) Utilizing vigorous brushwork and saturated colors, Henri in Portrait of a Girl is able to distill the essence of the young Irish girl.
In 1888, Henri left New York to study in Paris becoming enamored with the bright colors and short brushstrokes of Claude Monet and the French Impressionists. After visiting the Louvre and Luxembourg museums, however, Henri's palette turned dark, enthralled by the art of Edouard Manet. He began to incorporate in his paintings the artist's rich, dark palette, fluid brushstrokes and the use of contrasts of dark and light, in particular Manet's use of black juxtaposed against white and flesh tones. Later, Henri went to London in 1896 to view an exhibition of works by Diego Rodriguez de Sílva Velásquez, eager to view the works of the artist who influenced Manet. Regarding Velásquez, Henri noted, "His pictures seemed to me clear of all the truck of the art of the salons. Simple and direct, about man rather than about the little incidents which happen to man." (as quoted in B.B. Perlman, Robert Henri: His Life and Art, New York, 1991, p. 32) The influence of Velásquez's dark palette on Manet and Henri is reflected in a comment Manet made of a portrait by Velásquez, "The background disappears; it is made up of air which surrounds the gentleman, all dressed in black and lively." (as quoted in Robert Henri: His Life and Art, p. 44)
Throughout his career, Henri continued to travel and study. In 1907, he went to Holland to study the paintings of Frans Hals, particularly the use of his many variations of black and gray. Henri also took from Hals the animated expressions of his subject, capturing fleeting glimpses rather than formal poses. Discussing these artists' influence on Henri's portraits from the early 1900s, William Innes Homer notes, "We can trace the dignified full-length pose to Velásquez; the rapid, summary brushwork to Hals; and the use of strong, direct illumination, with accompanying dark shadows, to Rembrandt." (Robert Henri and His Circle, Ithaca, New York, 1969, p. 237)
Henri sailed for Ireland for the first time in June 1913 with his wife, Marjorie Organ, staying until the end of September near the fishing villages of Keel and Dooagh on the island of Achill. After painting the magnificent landscape of the island, the artist reverted back to portraiture. Between 1913 and 1928, Henri returned to the island spending every spring or summer concentrating on capturing the children of Dooagh. Portrait of a Girl is from his final trip to the island and is a masterful example of his later works in Ireland. Disparate from his earlier portraits in which the artist portrayed the playful personality of the subjects, these were more formal works investigating color and form. "Henri explored formal and abstract ideas of color and compositional harmonies in a virtual shorthand vocabulary. In these paintings, he used a more limited tonal range, with one or two foundation colors to build the composition." (V.A. Leeds, "The Portraits of Robert Henri" in My People: The Portraits of Robert Henri, p. 40)
In the present work, young Mary Lavelle looks to her left as her pale face with rosy cheeks and pink lips are contrasted with more subdued hues of the dark greens and blues of her dress and background. This palette combination distributed with liberal brushstrokes becomes the artist's closest demonstration of abstraction. Henri wrote, "Gesture expresses through form and color the states of life. Work with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in delaying. Get the greatest possibility of expression in the larger masses first. Then the features in their greatest simplicity in concordance with and dependent on the mass. Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying. But do not pass from the work on mass to features until all that can be said with the larger forms has been said--no matter how long it may take, no matter if accomplishment of the picture may be delayed from one to many days. Hold to this principle that the greatest drawing, the greatest expression, the greatest completion, the sense of all contained, lies in what can be done through the larger masses and the larger gestures." (The Art Spirit, pp. 26-27)
Echoing in the numerous portraits painted toward the end of his career are his 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." ("The Portraits of Robert Henri," My People: The Portraits of Robert Henri, p. 41) Part of a remarkable group of Henri's portraits focused on children from the Irish villages on Achill Island, Portrait of a Young Girl exemplifies the hallmarks that make Henri's portraits some of his most coveted work.