ROBERT HENRI 1865-1929
The Little Dancer, 1916-18
Oil on canvas, 40'/2 X 321/2" (102.87 x 82.55 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 920-0-107
The son of a riverboat gambler, Robert Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad in 1865 and grew up in the small town of Cozad, Nebraska, which his father had founded. After his father killed a man and fled to avoid arrest for murder, the various members of the family took different names to avoid identification. Robert assumed the name of Robert Henri. The family resettled in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and shortly afterwards, in 1886, having decided to become a painter, Henri enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. From 1886 to 1900, Henri alternated his time between Paris and Philadelphia, making three trips to Paris and working in Philadelphia in the intervening periods.
It was in Paris, where he first studied at the Acad6mie Julian and later formed a small art school of his own, that he grew to admire the dark palette and free brushwork of Edouard Manet, Frans Hals, and Diego Velazquez. Here he was exposed to Impressionism and was introduced to the daring, sometimes risqu6 realism of French authors. In 1899, a dark city snow scene he had painted was purchased by the Luxembourg Museum in Paris, a singular honor for an American artist. In Philadelphia, where he both studied and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he absorbed the sober realism of Thomas Eakins, as it had been passed on through the teachings of Thomas Anshutz. In addition, he formed a small coterie of young newspaper illustrators and would-be painters, including George Luks, John Sloan, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, who were inspired by his emphasis on originality and truthful depiction of real life.
In 1900, Henri moved to New York, where he became an extremely popular teacher of such artists as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. He also became a strong advocate of adventurous styles in painting, particularly boldly slashed scenes of urban life and portraits of the urban poor. One by one, the young men who had admired him in Philadelphia also moved to New York and gathered around him. After several works by these young artists were rejected by the National Academy of Design, he organized a show of the rejected work, along with paintings of his own, in 1908, at the Macbeth Gallery. Titled simply The Eight, the exhibition created a sensation, was flooded with visitors, and was even a commercial success. The event is often considered the opening salvo of modern art in the United States.
Henri was particularly fond of painting portraits, often of different ethnic types-Irish, African-American, Native American, and Chinese. He also executed many portraits of dancers, and often referred to Isadora Duncan when explaining the principles of vital art. The Little Dancer belongs to a period when most of Henri's works were portraits of a similar type such as Betalo Rubino, Dramatic Dancer (1915, St. Louis Art Museum), and when he was actively involved in teaching and exhibitions.
The warm, reddish-brown colors and the delicate, feathery brushwork of The Little Dancer are slightly atypical of Henri. They specifically bring to mind the later work of Henri's pupil, William Glackens, who, beginning around 1910, had fallen under the influence of the French Impressionist, Auguste Renoir. Perhaps the implicit sensuality of the subject, a young woman in a very short dress, sitting coyly in a plush chair, inspired Henri to pay this indirect homage to Renoir, who was known for his paintings of seductive young women.
The model may well be the same as the one depicted in a striking oil sketch, Isadora Duncan (c. 1915, private collection, New York), which was exhibited at the New York Cultural Center in 1969, although the identification of the subject as Isadora Duncan is incorrect.' This work shows a slender dark-haired young woman in a dancer's pose, attired in an orange-red dress similar to the one in the Butler lnstitute's painting. In a letter to Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Henri described the model for the painting, noting: "The young girl who posed for the picture is not professional either as dancer or model, but because of love of that sort of expression is nevertheless a very beautiful dancer, and one whose postures in action or in repose are expressive of fine temperament [sic]. In the picture of course she is in repose, but unity existed in this pose equally with those of action, and it was on this motive of unity, expressive of a state of being, that the construction of the picture was based."