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Thursday, December 14, 2017

From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland

From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland by Jonathan Stuhlman
by Jonathan Stuhlman

Fig. 1: William McKillop (1878–1937) Robert Henri (1865–1929), ca. 1920 Gelatin silver print, ca. 10 x 3-1/2 inches Courtesy, estate of the artist, LeClair Family Collection
Fig. 1: William McKillop (1878–1937)
Robert Henri (1865–1929), ca. 1920
Gelatin silver print, ca. 10 x 3-1/2 inches
Courtesy, estate of the artist, LeClair Family Collection

Robert Henri (1865–1929) (Fig. 1) is best known as the leader of a rebellious group of artists working in New York City in the early twentieth century who came to be known as the Ashcan School, and as an important teacher who influenced the careers of an entire generation of American artists. He and his colleagues—a group that included George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan—championed artistic freedom from the day’s academic standards. They painted scenes from contemporary life in highly personal styles that eschewed the constraints of the popular preference for tightly detailed, highly finished works of art. Yet despite his enthusiastic support for these ideas, Henri himself painted relatively few scenes of urban life.

Henri was a gifted portraitist, whose truest joy was in capturing the human spirit in its most elemental form (Fig. 2). Although he painted portaits on commission to supplement the money he earned from teaching, the majority of his canvases were completed out of his desire to engage with a wide range of people from many walks of life. These included the inhabitants of his neighborhood in New York; Native Americans and gypsies he met during trips to New Mexico and Maine; children he encountered during summer painting trips to Holland; and bullfighters and dancers he befriended during his many sojourns in Spain. But it was arguably during his stays in Ireland that he felt most at home. There he found subjects whom he felt possessed a unique kind of authenticity, untainted by modern life. The resulting portraits were among the most engaging and successful works of his career (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Tom Cafferty, 1924 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches Courtesy, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester; gift of Mrs. Granger A. Hollister (1926.1) Fig. 3: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Mary Agnes, 1924 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches Courtesy, private collection of Ti
Fig. 2: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Tom Cafferty, 1924
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Courtesy, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester; gift of Mrs. Granger A. Hollister (1926.1)

Fig. 3: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Mary Agnes, 1924
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Courtesy, private collection of Tia
Fig. 4: Robert Henri (1865–1929) John Butler Yeats, 1909 Oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 26-3/8 inches Courtesy, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation (1966)
Fig. 4: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
John Butler Yeats, 1909
Oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 26-3/8 inches
Courtesy, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation (1966)

As many of his biographers have noted, Henri’s choice of Ireland as a destination in 1913 seems to have been based on a variety of factors; his friendship with John Butler Yeats and other native Irishmen in New York; his desire to scout the area for potential models; the fact that both he and his second wife, Marjorie, traced portions of their family trees to Ireland; and the opening that year of the Armory Show, which signaled that modernism was about to overtake the American art world, displacing Henri and his circle of friends.

Henri met John Butler Yeats (1839–1922), Irish portrait painter, writer, intellectual, and father of poet William Butler Yeats and artist Jack B. Yeats, in 1909 (Fig. 4). Yeats had come to New York a few years earlier when his daughter was exhibiting some of her textiles there. He fell in love with the city, became a vital part of its cultural milieu, and never returned to his native land. He was a vocal advocate for Ireland’s traditional arts and often engaged his friends (including Henri) to support his efforts. Henri was eager to see his new friend’s portraits, many of which were in the collection of the National Gallery in Dublin. After he did so during his trip to Ireland in 1913, Henri wrote to his friend John Sloan, “In my opinion Yeats is the greatest British portrait painter of the Victorian era.” During a trip to Europe in 1907, Henri had expressed his admiration to Sloan for the rugged topography of the English countryside and his hope to one day return to that part of the world to paint. Family connections also drew him to Ireland, for his great-grandmother was Lady Fingall of Killeen Castle in County Meath, and his wife Marjorie had been born in Ireland in 1886.

Fig. 5: Robert Henri (1865–1929) West Coast of Ireland, 1913 Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 inches Courtesy, Everson Museum of Art; museum purchase (1958.6)
Fig. 5: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
West Coast of Ireland, 1913
Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 inches
Courtesy, Everson Museum of Art; museum purchase (1958.6)

Fig. 6: Robert Henri (1865–1929) My Friend Brien, 1913 Oil on canvas, 41 x 33 inches Courtesy, Mint Museum of Art; gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Crist Jr. in memory of John L. Crist Sr. (1966.14)
Fig. 6: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
My Friend Brien, 1913
Oil on canvas, 41 x 33 inches
Courtesy, Mint Museum of Art; gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Crist Jr. in memory of John L. Crist Sr. (1966.14)

And so, in 1913, seeking to clear his head and reinvigorate his career, Henri and his wife set sail to explore Ireland. After traveling around the country, they found Achill Island, an isolated, 75-square mile island on the country’s northwest coast that offered plentiful models, the rugged isolation that the artist had been seeking, and a large rental property with ample space for a studio. In fact, it was all so perfect, and his season of painting there went so well, that when he had the opportunity (and money) to return in 1924 he purchased a house, “Corrymore,” and subsequently went there every summer to paint—and fish for trout, his other passion—until his death in 1929.

In 1913, as he often did when visiting somewhere new, Henri first explored his surroundings, later processing his impressions of the island’s rolling topography, scrubby vegetation, and dramatic cliffs in a series of small oil sketches and three larger canvases (Fig. 5). Such landscapes are relatively rare in Henri’s oeuvre but they reveal him to be a talented practitioner in the genre. Equally rare are Henri’s paintings of adults from his Irish trips (Figs. 6, 7). In fact, he painted landscapes and adult sitters only during his first visit to the island. The subject that truly captured his imagination were the island’s children, portraits of whom comprise the vast majority of his hundreds of Irish paintings.

Fig. 7: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Old Johnnie’s Wife, 1913 Oil on canvas, 31 x 25 inches Courtesy, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Gift of John J. Weldon in memory of his wife Jean Dinwiddie Weldon (1981.795) Fig. 9: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Sarah B., 1924 Oil on canvas, 23-1/4 x 19-5/8 inches Courtesy, private collection
Fig. 7: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Old Johnnie’s Wife, 1913
Oil on canvas, 31 x 25 inches
Courtesy, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Gift of John J. Weldon in memory of his wife Jean Dinwiddie Weldon (1981.795)

Fig. 9: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Sarah B., 1924
Oil on canvas, 23-1/4 x 19-5/8 inches
Courtesy, private collection

Fig. 8: Robert Henri (1865–1929) The Blue Plaid Dress (Annie), 1927 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches Courtesy, private collection
Fig. 8: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
The Blue Plaid Dress (Annie), 1927
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Courtesy, private collection

These engaging canvases show not only how incredibly skillful Henri was at capturing the personalities of his child sitters but, surprisingly, what a talented colorist he was as well (Fig. 8). Although not a father himself, Henri clearly enjoyed painting children. He made his views on the topic clear in his book The Art Spirit: “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 [sic] of what is before him...Paint with respect for [the child]...He is the great possibility, the independent individual.” Despite his admiration for them, many of the island’s youth were understandably shy around the Henris, as foreign visitors to Achill were a rarity. So how did this American artist, who was old enough to be a grandfather to most of his Irish models, relate to these young sitters? He and Marjorie found a variety of ways to entertain them while they posed. The children were paid half a crown for each session, which also included perks such as listening to the artist’s Victrola, snacking on tea and biscuits, and sometimes receiving a small gift or pieces of candy.

Fig. 10: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Her Sunday Shawl, 1924 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20-1/4 inches Courtesy, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; gift of Charles G. Thalhimer in memory of his wife, Rhoda (2003.125) Fig. 11: Robert Henri (1865–1929) The Pink Pinafore (Mary Ann Cafferty), 1926 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches Courtesy, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNL-F.M. Hall Collection
Fig. 10: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Her Sunday Shawl, 1924
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20-1/4 inches
Courtesy, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; gift of Charles G. Thalhimer in memory of his wife, Rhoda (2003.125)

Fig. 11: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
The Pink Pinafore (Mary Ann Cafferty), 1926
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Courtesy, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNL-F.M. Hall Collection

Fig. 12: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Mary Ann Cafferty, 1928 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches Courtesy, private collection
Fig. 12: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Mary Ann Cafferty, 1928
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Courtesy, private collection

Fig. 13: Robert Henri (1865–1929) Portrait of Mary Gallagher, 1924 Oil on canvas, 24-1/4 x 20-1/4 inches Courtesy, The Newark Museum; gift of Mrs. Felix Fuld (1925.25.1168)
Fig. 13: Robert Henri (1865–1929)
Portrait of Mary Gallagher, 1924
Oil on canvas, 24-1/4 x 20-1/4 inches
Courtesy, The Newark Museum; gift of Mrs. Felix Fuld (1925.25.1168)

Many of the island children were related to each other, and Henri often painted members of the same family—brothers, sisters, and cousins—repeatedly, both during the course of a single visit or over a span of two or more years. In some cases, he was able to capture different moods or aspects of the sitter’s personality by changing the colors and pose. This can be seen in two paintings of Sarah Burke, both completed in 1924 (Figs. 9, 10). In other series of canvases, Henri captured the process of a favorite sitter maturing over time, something that he did for Mary Ann Cafferkey and Thomas Cafferkey (whose names Henri mistakenly transcribed as Cafferty), and Annie Lavelle (Figs. 11, 12). Although Henri’s goal of painting subjects who were somehow “authentically” Irish might now seem somewhat naïve, it is to the artist’s credit that his portraits from Achill Island do not stoop to the level of caricature common at that time. While some of the children appear young and innocent, others appear mature well beyond their years, likely due to the hardscrabble existence they eked out on the isolated island (Fig. 13). That Henri was able to achieve such a broad range of emotional effects and to so ably capture his sitters’ personalities is a testament to his skill as a realist, his deep respect for his subjects, and his desire to work directly from life in order to create a dynamic work of art.


Henri’s Irish portraits are the subject of From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland. The exhibition originated at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will be on view at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, through May 12, 2012. It is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by its co-curators Jonathan Stuhlman and Dr. Valerie Ann Leeds. Visit www.everson.org for more details.


Jonathan Stuhlman, curator of American art, The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina.

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