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by Fred Stern
"Robert Henri: The Painted Spirit," Oct. 27-Dec. 10, 2005, at Gerald Peters Gallery, 24 East 78th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

New York’s Gerald Peters Gallery celebrates the portraits of Robert Henri (1865-1929) in its current exhibition, "The Painted Spirit." With more than 35 paintings on two floors of the gallery’s handsome Upper East Side townhouse, the show is a sure draw for figurative painters and other fans of a humanist, painterly realism. 

As the founder of the so-called "Ashcan School," Henri (pronounced "hen-rye") was moved by the dynamism of the urban scene, and determined to capture it with a sympathetic realism. Henri embraced a specifically American sense of populism, one that was sentimental in spirit and democratic in its approach to its subjects. Though he was left behind after the artistic revolution of the 1913 Armory Show, Henri began the century as something of an artistic progressive, and retained a "lifelong devotion to the cult of the individual," as Valerie Ann Leeds puts it in her essay in the show catalogue.

While his corpus includes urban landscapes, snow scenes and even a painting of a French Bastille Day celebration in France, by 1902 Henri had decided to focus on portraits. Not society commissions, which he could forgo, thanks to a successful teaching career. Rather, Henri sought out ordinary people. He wrote, "Human faces are incentives to great adventures. They. . . signify realities not yet attained. Their pursuit is the thing. . . . The picture is the trace of the adventure."

Henri’s portraits are instantly identifiable. Big eyes, red lips, a direct gaze engaging the viewer, all painted with a "breezy swiftness" that gives the effect of an "easy naturalism," to borrow the works of Valerie Ann Leeds again. Henri favored placing his sitters against a dark background -- demonstrating the influence of Manet and Velazquez -- which allowed his colors to come through more brilliantly. His palette was rich in reds, grays and blues.

His subjects were most often women, typically the common people of Spain or the American west, such as laundresses, American Indians and Spanish gypsies, people who he encountered on his many trips to Europe, California and New Mexico. He was especially fond of painting children; the show at Peters includes a group of seven portraits done in Ireland in the ‘20s on the first floor, and several additional ones upstairs. "If you paint children you must have no patronizing attitude towards them. Whoever approaches a child without humility. . . and without infinite respect, misses in his judgment of what is before him," Henri wrote in his book, The Art Spirit (1923).

What is so refreshing about his portrait work is its directness. There is none of the "I am posing" feeling about his figures. The result: faces that effectively reveal the character of the sitter. Among his American colleagues in the Ashcan School, this work was greatly admired and respected.

In a rear gallery on the second floor are several nudes from 1915-16, including a particularly striking nude of Viv, his sister-in-law (Henri also used professional models). After taking in the show at Gerald Peters, go around the corner and cross the street to the Whitney Museum, where Henri’s portrait of a reclining, bohemian Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney greets visitors to the fifth-floor installation of the museum’s permanent collection.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.