National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Girl Seated by the Sea
Robert Henri, 1865 - 1929
1893, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 (45.7 x 61), Collection of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz

In the summer of 1893, Robert Henri served as instructor in oil painting at the Avalon Summer Assembly in Avalon, New Jersey. The "Assembly," a Chautauqua-like educational program, had been organized "to afford teachers and others practical means for training themselves to a broader understanding of those subjects commonly taught, or which should be taught, in primary, grammar, and secondary schools."1 Henri's invitation to participate came shortly after he had returned from an extended period of study abroad. The paintings he produced in Avalon, including Girl Seated by the Sea, clearly reflect his brief but intense enthusiasm for European impressionism.

As early as 1887, Henri confessed in a letter to his parents that he had contracted "Paris fever" and that he hoped to visit the French capital within the year.2 A few months later he set sail and shortly thereafter enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. Although he continued to study at the academy for some time, Henri became disenchanted with the conservative approach promoted by the artists who critiqued his work. Following the example of the impressionists, whose work he had seen in galleries and exhibitions, Henri began experimenting with strokes of pure color juxtaposed in the impressionist manner.

In the fall of 1891 Henri returned to Philadelphia, enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and began studying with Robert Vonnoh, another American artist who had traveled to Paris and become intrigued with the technical innovations of the impressionists.

Girl Seated by the Sea is an experimental work that reflects Henri's brief fascination with the palette and painting technique of the impressionists. The figure at the center of the composition (perhaps one of his students at Avalon) sits in isolation looking at the sea and the ship on the horizon. Almost generic in her anonymity, she is less the focus of the composition than the warm, bright light Henri uses to define figure, shore, and sea. Adopting the "rough" strokes of color he admired in Monet's haystack paintings, Henri created a surface that conveys the "lucid" light he sought. Ironically, within a short period of time Henri would emerge as the leader of the so-called ashcan school -- a group of painters whose urban realism was often expressed with colors so dark they were sometimes called the "black gang."

Nancy Anderson
Associate curator of American and British paintings

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Notes

1. [Clark S. Marlor], "The Avalon Summer Assembly," newspaper clipping, 1895, provided by the Cape May County Museum.

2. Henri, letter to his parents, Oct. - Dec. 1887, quoted in Bennard B. Perlman, Robert Henri: His Life and Art (New York, 1991), 10.