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Valerie Ann Leeds, “Robert Henri/Indian Girl in White Blanket/1917,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed May 22, 2024).

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Aug 09, 2018 Version

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One of the group of urban realist painters known as the Eight and a highly influential teacher, Robert Henri devoted himself to portraiture beginning in 1902. Rather than work on commission, he chose to depict people of many ages and nationalities, seeking subjects in the United States and abroad. The artist painted Indian Girl in a White Blanket in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is one of 10 likenesses he completed of Julianita, a young woman from San Ildefonso pueblo studying at an Indian school located near the artist’s studio in the Palace of the Governors.

Applying a bold, modern painting style to an indigenous American theme, Indian Girl in a White Blanket presents both a sympathetic likeness and a dramatic arrangement of form and color. The softly curving folds of lushly painted white drapery that envelop the dignified Julianita create a sense of depth, while a geometrically patterned blanket inspired by Native American designs provides a vibrant backdrop. The artist often supplied these accessories himself, because he was interested not in depicting Native American life or material culture from an anthropological perspective, but rather from an aesthetic and expressive one. As he stated: “I only want to find whatever of the great spirit there is in the Southwest. If I can hold it on my canvas, I am satisfied.”


In 1902 Robert Henri decided to dedicate himself to portraiture. Rather than taking commissions, he sought out his own subjects, painting people of diverse ages and nationalities. He traveled widely, making trips abroad as well as to the American West, including three productive visits to Santa Fe in 1916, 1917, and 1922. There he produced a sizable body of work depicting Latino and Native American subjects, including this portrait of Julianita, a schoolgirl from the San Ildefonso pueblo. 

Henri first painted Julianita on his second trip to Santa Fe. He arrived in July and was initially frustrated by his inability to find compelling subjects and settle down to work. On August 19 he wrote to George Bellows of his continuing struggle: “I’m sorry . . . I haven’t done anything exceptional to show you so far. Shall have to work up or try to get one at least before you come.”[1] By November 17, following Bellows’s visit, Henri finally expressed satisfaction to his friend: “[I] have been doing some since you left—got some good ones. Got a line of very beautiful Indian girls.”[2] These included Julianita, a student at an Indian school located near Henri’s studio in the Palace of the Governors.[3] Julianita also modeled for nine other portraits: five that fall and four painted when Henri returned to Santa Fe in 1922.[4] Among the five other 1917 works is Indian Girl (Julianita) [fig. 1], completed right before the present painting, in which Julianita appears wrapped in a brown silk shawl.

Henri frequently produced series of likenesses based on similar ideas, often using the same model, the same pose, or a similar compositional device.[5] He first experimented with swathing his subject in a stark white wrap in a painting of the previous summer, Mexican Girl, (Maria) (1916, private collection, Kansas City, MO), which shows the model with a white cloth wrapped around her head. Henri also used the white blanket in two other portraits from 1917 that pre-date Indian Girl in White Blanket: first Maria (Lucinda) [fig. 2] and then Gregorita, Indian of Santa Clara [fig. 3]. In the latter the blanket is loosely wrapped around the girl; its folds obscure her body and create an abstract design that nearly overwhelms other elements of the composition. Henri exploits the motif of the blanket to its fullest in Indian Girl in White Blanket by enveloping Julianita’s head and body more tightly. The thick folds of the fabric around her head and neck fall in concentric ovals that echo the shape of the sitter’s face, while the more angular creases across her body repeat the lines of the decorative blanket in the background. Together, the folds of the white blanket strike a balance between articulating Julianita’s form and creating visual interest in the composition as a whole.

During his three visits to Santa Fe Henri increasingly integrated Native American−inspired decorative elements into his compositions. Unlike other artists who painted in the Southwest, he was not interested in documenting Native American life, nor did he want to represent their material culture with an eye toward anthropology. Gregorita later recalled that Henri and his wife often posed the models and supplied the various accessories, including shawls and blankets.[6] In at least 15 paintings, including Indian Girl in White Blanket, he used colorful blankets with geometric designs to enliven the compositions.[7] As Henri himself noted, “I do not wish to explain these people, I do not wish to preach through them, I only want to find whatever of the great spirit there is in the Southwest. If I can hold it on my canvas, I am satisfied.”[8]

The fall and winter of 1917 constituted one of the most creative and productive periods in Henri’s career. Despite his slow start, the season resulted in a number of his most important portraits of Native Americans, including Indian Girl in White Blanket. As Henri noted, “I didn’t really get above average until towards the end—then things began to happen and they happened right along to the end. . . . Had I quit at the end of the usual summer term I should have been nowhere.”[9] By the conclusion of the 1917 Santa Fe sojourn he had completed more than 100 major works, 76 of which were portraits.[10]

Indian Girl in White Blanket was first included in the inaugural exhibition of the New Mexico Museum’s new art gallery in 1917.[11] The work then appeared at a number of venues in New York; Baltimore; and Columbus, Ohio; where critics pointed to its bold, vigorous brushwork and its characterization of southwestern life.[12] One critic in particular noted that Henri’s works were not too literal and praised his ability to express a “vivid appreciation for the spirit of the being he interprets.”[13] Indian Girl in White Blanket was later featured in the Corcoran’s Ninth Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings in 1923, where it was one of the audience favorites. It was purchased by the gallery that year and was among the earliest acquisitions by a museum of Henri’s southwestern subjects.[14]

Valerie Ann Leeds

August 17, 2018


lower right: ROBERT HENRI


(William MacBeth, Inc., New York); purchased 1923 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington;[1] acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Associated Names

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Exhibition History

Dedication Exhibit of Southwestern Art, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, November - December 1917, no. 141.
Exhibition of Paintings by Robert Henri, Milch Galleries, New York, 25 February - 16 March 1918, no. 15.
Daniel Gallery, New York, 1919.
Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of American Art, Peabody Institute, Baltimore, 29 January - 25 February 1923.
Macbeth Gallery, New York, 1923.
Ninth Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 16 December 1923 - 20 January 1924, no. 281.
Ohio State Fair, Columbus, September 1923.
XXI Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte, Venice, 1 June - 30 September 1938, United States Section, no. 29.
American National Exhibtion, Moscow, 1959, not in catalogue.
Directions in Twentieth Century American Painting, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1961, no. 14.
Modern American Painting, Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, 1962-1963, no. 21.
Robert Henri: Painter-Teacher-Prophet, New York Cultural Center, 1969, no. 76.
French Impressionists Influence American Artists, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, 1971, no. 66.
Symbols and Scenes: Art By and About American Indians, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980.
Henri's Circle, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 April-16 June 1985, unnumbered checklist.
The Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907–1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered catalogue.
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004, unpublished checklist.
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 76.
The American Evolution: A History Through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpubilshed checklist.
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.

Technical Summary

The painting was executed on a fine, plain-weave canvas that was preprimed with a smooth, off-white ground. The artist appears to have blocked in major elements of the design with a thin, fluid paint primarily in umbers in the background and dark tones containing black in the figure. He then built up the composition by painting wet into wet with an opaque, pasty paint that holds the marks of the brush and has a low, soft impasto. In the background the artist freely applied many layers of rich, saturated colors, adjusting the shapes and contours as he went along. In the face of the figure Henri painted more delicately, blending thinner applications of paint with little texture.

According to the Corcoran Museum files this painting has had several different conservation treatments. In 1967 a puncture in the painting was patched, filled, and retouched, and nine areas of the canvas were infused from behind with a wax adhesive to consolidate areas where the paint on the front was flaking. In a 2005 treatment the patch was removed, the painting was lined to a secondary support with a Beva 371 adhesive, and the canvas was stretched onto a new, modern stretcher. Also at this time the old, discolored, natural resin varnish was removed and replaced with a synthetic resin, and several losses, including a small tear located 9 inches from the right edge and 3.5 inches from the top edge, were filled and inpainted.


McBride, Henry. "Exhibitions at New York Galleries." Fine Arts Journal 36, no. 3 (March 1918): 62-63, repro.
"A Few Pictures from the Ninth Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art." The Washington Post (23 December 1923): 73, repro.
"Charcoal Club Exhibition is of Rare Beauty: Annual Showing of American Art Brings Together Many Fine Paintings and Sculpture." Baltimore Sun (February 4, 1923): part 2, sec. 1, 4.
Dorr, Charles Henry. "Brooklyn Artists to the Fore in Corcoran Gallery Show [exh. review]." The Brooklyn Times (23 December 1923): 7.
Grafly, Dorothy. "Charcoal Club's Annual Show of American Art in Baltimore [exh. review]." Christian Science Monitor (26 February 1923): 10.
Wright, Helen. "Ninth Biennial is a Brilliant Exhibit [exh. review]." Art News 22, no. 11 (22 December 1923): 4.
Brigham, Gertrude Richardson. "Art and Artists of the Capital: Corcoran Gallery Reopens." The Washington Post (3 February 1924): sec. ES, 9.
Flambeau, Viktor. "Public Votes This Week on Prize Picture: Corcoran Biennial Exhibition Visitors Will Select Their Favorite." The Washington Herald (6 January 1924): March of Events sec., 5.
Henderson, Rose. "Robert Henri." American Magazine of Art 21, no. 1 (January 1930): 8, repro.
"Indian Girl in White Ceremonial Blanket." Christian Science Monitor (22 September 1938): 12, repro.
Lewis, Elisabeth Ray. "Museum Treasures of the Week: The Corcoran Gallery Collection in Review." The Washington Post (3 September 1939): A5.
"Art for Moscow Includes Selection by President." The Washington Post (22 July 1959): B3, repro.
Melnick, Denise Catherine. "Art at the Mexican Front: Robert Henri, George Wesley Bellows and Leon Kroll in New Mexico 1916-1922." M.A. thesis, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1970: 55-57, 88, repro.
Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 66, repro.
Richard, Paul. "Wooden Indians [exh. review]." The Washington Post (6 March 1980): D8, repro.
Broder, Patricia Janis. The American West: The Modern Vision. Boston, 1984: 31, repro.
Perlman, Bennard B. Robert Henri: His Life and Art. New York, 1991: 149.
Burchard, Hank. "Corcoran Biennial: A Retreat in Reverse [exh. review]." The Washington Post (7 August 1998): N55.
Leeds, Valerie Ann. Robert Henri in Santa Fe: His Work and Influence. Exh. cat. Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, 1998: 18, 20-21, 100-101, repro.
Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 178, repro.
Leeds, Valerie Ann. "Robert Henri and the American Southwest: His Work and Influence." Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 2000: 241, 471, repro.
Bennett, Lennie. "The Coming of Age of American Art [exh. review]." St. Petersburg Times (18 February 2007): 9L.
Leeds, Valerie Ann. "Robert Henri, Indian Girl in White Blanket." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 220-221, 279-280, repro.

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