In addition to his role as a leader of the Ashcan school and an influential teacher, Robert Henri is perhaps best remembered for his spirited portraits of children. In the present work, Henri depicts a young Irish girl in the artist's classic style; a portrait of a single figure gazing confidently at the viewer. His subject is Mary O'Dee, 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 Mary O'Dee is able to distill the essence of the young 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. 4) Mary O'Dee displays the influence of these masters on Henri as a pale face with rosy cheeks and a bright pink dress emerge from the dark background, exposing the spirit and vitality of the young girl.
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." (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, Mary O'Dee exemplifies the hallmarks that make these portraits some of his most coveted work. He combines the style of European artists and the subject of New York Ash Can School artists to successfully portray the character of a young girl. Henri's heralded portraits such as Mary O'Dee now remain as iconic images of humanity.