Robert Henri (American, 1865-1929),
Portrait of Fi
oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 20 1/8 in.; 61.6 x 51.12 cm
Museum purchase, Irving W. Benolken Memorial Fund, 1957.14
Born Henry Robert Cozad in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865, Henri spent a vagabond childhood in locations dependent on the colorful entrepreneurship of his father, John Cozad. He enjoyed a carefree youth in Cozad, Nebraska, a town founded by his father on prairie land acquired from railroad company sales. In 1882 John Cozad was involved in a fatal shooting that tarnished his respected position in the community. Although he was later cleared for wrongdoing, he moved his family away from Cozad and altered their names to avoid public ridicule. Henry Robert Cozad assumed a new identity as Robert Earl Henri. Proud of his American heritage, Henri insisted his name be pronounced “Hen-rye” rather than in the French manner. Prompted by his early interest in magazine illustrations which he copied in his diaries and scrapbooks, Henri entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886 and later at the Académie Julian in Paris. Returning to Philadelphia in 1891, he embarked on a long career of painting, teaching, and lecturing that eventually led him to New York. Established there permanently after 1900, Henri continued to travel extensively in Europe and the United States.
A gifted teacher, Henri advocated the painterly brushwork of Diego Velazquez and Frans Hals and the dark palette and unadulterated realism of Rembrandt and Edouard Manet, a combination that lent an American freshness to his work. Champion of the masses and struggling artists, Henri, “the great white knight of American art,” forged a group of painters into The Eight, influential pioneers of realism who clamored for reform not only in art but in the entire structure of the antiquated American academy system. The Eight frankly presented in their paintings the urban working class and their milieu. Their depictions, neither sentimental nor picturesque, of the back alleys and small shops of New York, often enveloped in soot and smoke, earned for these artists the derogatory nickname “the Ashcan School.”
In his own art Henri, preferring the humanity of the city over its landscape, painted lively portraits of street urchins, immigrants, and “characters.” He particularly enjoyed painting children, their range and character taken from the breadth of his travels. Rapidly executed and capturing the spontaneity of youth, these small portraits account for a large part of his oeuvre. Portrait of Fi exemplifies Henri’s approach and composition in these pictures. Fi, a Dutch girl painted by Henri in Haarlem during the summer of 1907, is depicted without setting or props, staring frankly out at the viewer. The direct pose and loose, energetic brushwork are well suited for this open, unaffected portrayal that conveys the warmth and optimism Henri believed so essential to the human condition.