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 Bishop, Henri depicts a young Irish boy in the artist's classic mode, a portrait of a single figure facing the viewer. His subject is Anthony Lavelle, shown three-quarter length, and painted in dashing strokes of color. The boy's hair is a swirl of red combined to vivid effect with his blue coat and touches of white, red, yellow and olive throughout.
The Bishop is part of a remarkable group of portraits produced by Henri late in his career. This striking series focused on children from the Irish village of Dooagh, on Achill Island, where Henri had long maintained a home. The best of these portraits exhibit a spirited technique characterized by a "painterly abandon and generous fluency of pigment."(V. A. Leeds, My People, The Portraits of Robert Henri, Seattle, Washington, 1994, p. 40) Among them are several depicting the Lavelle children, including Anthony, the subject of The Bishop. As noted by Valerie Leeds, "the late Irish portraits are devoted almost entirely to children, a theme Henri began to concentrate on in the early 1920's. 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 judgement 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)
Henri's broad and varied ideas about painting are articulated at length in the collection of his lectures and observations published in 1923 under the title The Art Spirit. One particular quotation, often cited, could stand as a manifesto for his portraiture: "The people I like to paint are 'my people,' whoever they may be the people through whom dignity of life is manifest my people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only by gestures. But wherever I find them, the Indian at work...the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell them through my own language-drawing and painting in color." (Donelson F. Hoopes, Robert Henri, New York, 1976, n.p.)
As Henri noted elsewhere, "If one has love of children as human beings, and realizes the greatness that is in them, no better subjects for painting can be found." (Hoopes, n.p.)