Although Robert Henri's career was not solely dedicated to painting portraits, they are certainly the most distinctive feature of his body of work. Henri was a dedicated teacher and influential member of art community in New York in the early twentieth century, but his portraits eclipse all of his other achievements, and are most often used to chronicle the artist's life.
Henri's portraits were not the result of costly commissions. Instead, the artist chose his sitters based on the vitality and character that they emanated. "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.' His subjects came not only from foreign countries but also from the United States, where he sought out blacks and Chinese Americans, along with Mexicans, Native Americans, and gypsies." (W.I. Homer, "Robert Henri as a Portrait Painter" in My People, The Portraits of Robert Henri, Seattle, Washington, 1994, p. 13)
Henri dedicated the majority of his time each summer to developing his skills and painting. He preferred to leave New York City and derive inspiration from different parts of the United States and the world. "Except for Ireland, Henri spent more time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, than at any other summer painting site. While visiting San Diego in 1914, he was introduced briefly to culture of the Southwest Indians by Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, ethnologist and director of the School of American Archaeology in Santa Fe, who had been called to California to prepare the Indian exhibits for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. Dr. Hewett's enthusiasm was one factor that influenced Henri to spend the summers of 1916, 1917 and 1922 in Santa Fe. Another attraction was the presence of so much that reminded him of Spain: the clear, sun-drenched atmosphere, the blazing blue skies, and the nightly singing of the Mexican workmen as they sauntered by his rambling adobe on Palace Avenue." (W.I. Homer, Robert Henri and His Circle, Ithaca, New York, 1969, p. 202)
In Santa Fe as everywhere else, Henri's "favorite models were picturesque types chosen from the local Indian and Mexican populace" (Robert Henri and His Circle, p. 203) In Little Indian, Henri has brilliantly captured not only the physical attributes, but the spirit of his sitter. The little boy gazes directly at the viewer with piercing, dark eyes that belie his youth. He conveys a maturity and wisdom well beyond his years.
One of the effects of the Southwest on Henri's work was the brightening of his palette. In New Mexico, Henri felt free to modify his previous formula by enlivening his background. "Henri, who had earlier almost always posed his subjects in undifferentiated dark settings inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture, began habitually using in his Pueblo portraits bright, patterned backgrounds suggestive of Southwest Indian textile designs." (J.C. Troccoli, Painters and the American West: The Anschutz Collection, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 23) In this portrait, he has chosen a native textile with a white ground and geometric blocks of bright red, green, blue and purple.
Robert Henri's Santa Fe portraits signify much more than one of the highlights within a distinguished career, for they were a significant milestone in the development of an important artists' community. Henri derived inspiration from the area, and the Southwest benefited from the presence of a major American artist in its midst. Indeed, "if the culture of the New Mexico Indians affected Henri's paintings, his presence, in turn, influenced the course of contemporary art in Santa Fe and, to a lesser extent, in Taos as well. For three summers the force of his style and personality was felt in the art colony at Santa Fe, an effect readily acknowledged by the reviewers of the regional exhibitions at the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe. Henri's national prominence as an artist and his glowing descriptions of Santa Fe also helped to attract other major painters to the growing art colony." (Robert Henri and His Circle, pp. 202, 205)