Painted in 1913, Catharine is a rapidly painted character study—a form favored by Robert Henri at this time. The artist preferred to depict people with whom he felt a strong spiritual empathy, which enabled him to portray a wide spectrum of humanity that would not have been possible with conventional commissions. This work was painted during Henri’s first visit to Achill Island, off the west coast of Ireland, where he stayed in a house named Corrymore near the remote fishing villages Keel and Dooagh. During this time Henri painted numerous portraits of the local inhabitants, especially children. According to Henri, Catharine was a poor fisherman’s daughter who was related to Brien O’Malley, the elderly subject of his Guide to Croaghan (1913, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, FL). Because of its immense charm and spontaneity, Catharine has always been one of Henri’s most popular portraits. Much of the painting’s success can be attributed to Catharine’s extraordinarily expressive eyes. The exceptionally vigorous brushwork and bright palette is typical of Henri’s work of this period. A Pittsburgh critic pronounced it one of Henri’s “best, most interesting and most attractive child pictures . . . beautiful, charming, a canvas that would command attention and admiration in any collection.”
Robert Henri’s fame as a portraitist rests on his many spontaneously painted images of people whose appearance fascinated him rather than on his commissioned portraits. Such rapidly painted character studies of people with whom the artist felt a strong spiritual empathy, like this young girl, enabled him to portray a wide spectrum of humanity that would have been unavailable in conventional commissions. Henri explained:
The people that I paint are ‘my people,’ whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along with the lines Nature intended for them. My people may be old or young, rich or poor. . . . But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man’s way, the Spanish gipsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell them through my own language—drawing and painting in color.
Robert Henri, “‘My People’: By Robert Henri,” The Craftsman 27 (Feb. 1915): 459.
Chief among Henri’s subjects were the young children whom he met during his travels. He felt that their faces reflected a primal innocence that had not yet been corrupted by the rigors of life:
If you paint children you must have no patronizing attitude toward them. Whoever approaches a child without humility, without wonderment and without infinite respect misses in his judgment what is before him, and loses an opportunity for a marvelous response. Children are greater than the grown man. All grown men have more experience, but only a few retain the greatness that was theirs before the system of compromises began in their lives. I have never respected any man more than I have some children. In the faces of children I have seen a look of wisdom and of kindness expressed with such ease and such certainty that I knew it was the expression of a whole race. Later, that child would grow into being a man or woman and fall, as most of us do, into the business of little detail with only now and then a glimmering remembrance of a lost power. A rare few remain simple and hold on through life to their universal kinship, wade through all detail and can still look out on the painter with the simplicity of a child and the wisdom of the race plus an individual experience. These, however, are rare, but the potentiality exists in all children.
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, comp. Margery Ryerson (New York, 1923), 237–238.
Catharine was painted in June 1913 during Henri’s first visit to Achill Island, County Mayo, off the west coast of Ireland. He had originally intended to spend the summer in Woodstock, New York, but the stress he had endured during and after the Armory Show led him to seek seclusion in the country where his second wife, Marjorie Organ, had been born.
Bennard B. Perlman, Robert Henri: His Life and Art (New York, 1991), 110.
William Innes Homer regarded 1913 as the beginning of “the third and final period in Henri's artistic development,” and noted that this first trip to Ireland “served as a catalyst that led him to a fresh approach to painting.”
William Innes Homer, Robert Henri and His Circle (1969; rev. ed., New York, 1988), 247.
Marjorie Henri to John and Dolly Sloan, July 5, 1913, quoted in Revolutions of Realism: The Letters of John Sloan and Robert Henri, ed. Bennard B. Perlman (Princeton, NJ, 1997), 216–217.
It was done last summer in Ireland. We lived for three months on Achill Island (county Mayo) and my studio and our residence, as well, was ‘Corrymore house’ that was built on the wild, boggy side of Croaghan above the little village called Dooagh where Catharine lived. Captain Boycott—whose name has become a dictionary word—was the builder of ‘Corrymore’ and he lived there for many years. Dooagh is a mile below (and two to walk) at the water’s edge—a very old, primitive and very poor village made up of little white cottages, with walls of heavy stone, thatched roofs, and smoke from the turf fires coming always from the chimneys.
Catharine’s house was on the main road. The people fished and tilled what soil they had made possible among the rocks and on the bogland—a wonderful good natured people with the richest voices I have ever heard. There was still boycotting going on, local war waged against the balifs [sic], land-leaguing and a lot of that which goes to make up the story of Ireland. We had a wonderful summer with nothing in the world to do but work . . . Catharine’s father fished and had his potato patch—just enough to keep things going.
Robert Henri to William J. Johnson, Nov. 5, 1913, NGA Library, Rare MSS 6, digitized 2015; copy in NGA curatorial files.
Henri stated that Catharine was related to Brien O’Malley, the elderly subject of his Guide to Croaghan
This information, which Henri had written on a preview invitation to the 3rd Annual Exhibition of the National Association of Portrait Painters in 1914, was supplied by the donor; Oscar Doyle Johnson to J. Carter Brown, Feb. 9, 1972, NGA curatorial files. Henri painted another portrait of O’Malley in 1913: My Friend Brien (Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC). Thomas McNamara, who arranged an exhibition celebrating the 80th anniversary of Henri’s first visit to Achill Island in 1993, in a letter to NGA director Earl A. Powell III, Jan. 4, 1993, NGA curatorial files, noted that Brien O’Malley had a granddaughter named Catharine.
Apparently Henri stayed in contact with Catharine, because he stated his intention of forwarding a photograph of the portrait to her that Johnson had sent him. See Robert Henri to William J. Johnson, Mar. 13, 1914, NGA Library, Rare MSS 6, digitized 2015; copy in NGA curatorial files.
Because of its immense charm, spontaneity, and appealing subject, Catharine has always been one of Henri’s most popular and reproduced portraits.
It is illustrated in Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, Robert Henri (New York, 1922), n.p.; William Yarrow and Louis Bouche, Robert Henri: His Life and Works (New York, 1921), op. p. 104; Bennard B. Perlman, “Robert Henri,” Arts Digest 28 (Aug. 1, 1954), 15; and Alfredo Valente, Robert Henri: Painter, Teacher, Prophet (New York, 1969), op. p. 105. Oscar Johnson provided a letter he received from Robert W. Macbeth on Dec. 28, 1936, concerning Henri’s sister-in-law Violet Organ’s desire to use a reproduction of Catharine for the frontispiece of the second edition of The Art Spirit.
William Innes Homer, Robert Henri and His Circle (Ithaca, NY, 1969; rev. ed., 1988), 252.
For a discussion of Maratta’s influence on Henri, see Michael Quick, “Robert Henri: Theory and Practice,” in Valerie Ann Leeds, My People: The Portraits of Robert Henri (Orlando, FL, 1994), 47–62.
Victor Rowland, unidentified Pittsburgh newspaper, November 1913, quoted in Oscar Doyle Johnson to J. Carter Brown, Feb. 9, 1972, NGA curatorial files.
Oscar Doyle Johnson to John Walker, June 17, 1948, NGA curatorial files. The donor furnished a typed transcript of a letter from Robert W. Macbeth to William J. Johnson, October 28, 1913, in which he wrote, “If you aren’t as crazy about this little Catharine as I am and if your friends among the artists don’t congratulate you unanimously, I'll very much miss my guess.” The donor also provided two typed transcripts of letters from Macbeth to Johnson of February 7 and 24, 1914, in which Macbeth discusses arrangements for including a photograph of Catharine in a forthcoming sales catalog. In the second letter he wrote, “You may look forward to seeing ‘Catharine’ reproduced as typical of Henri’s work in our booklet. I wish it were as typical in subject as it is in its painting, but the trouble is with Henri’s other subjects—not with ‘Catharine.’ I wish he always turned out pictures as attractive as she.” Apparently the painting was never reproduced in the catalog.
August 17, 2018
lower right: Robert Henri; upper left of canvas reverse: Robert Henri; upper right of canvas reverse: 266 / H; across top horizontal stretcher bar reverse: CATHERINE [sic]
Purchased from the artist by (Macbeth Gallery, New York); sold November 1913 to William J. Johnson [1860-1942], Uniontown, Pennsylvania; by inheritance to his son, Oscar Doyle Johnson, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania; gift 1948 to NGA.
- French, American and Italian Review, Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, 1963, no. 36.
- Robert Henri: Painter-Teacher-Prophet, New York Cultural Center, 1969, addenda no. 2, repro.
- Extended loan for use by Ambassador Peter R. Coneway, U.S. Embassy residence, Bern, Switzerland, 2006-2008.
- From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland, Mint Museum Uptown, Charlotte; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, 2011-2012, no. 12, repro.
The fine, plain-weave fabric support was lined with wax and remounted on a nonoriginal stretcher. Although the edges are covered with tape, a treatment report from 1969 that describes the lining process suggests that the original tacking margins were retained. The artist applied paint vigorously over a tan ground. Moderate impasto appears in the folds of the fabric and in the sitter’s hair. Henri intentionally abraded the left eye to enhance the shadow there. No pentimenti or design changes were noted during examination with X-radiography. No underdrawing or changes were found during infrared examination.
Infrared examination was conducted with the Kodak 310-21x, a platinum silicide camera with a 55 mm macro lens and a 1.5–2.0 micron filter.
- Macbeth, William. Paintings by American Artists: Colonial Portraits New York, 1913: 46, repro.
- Yarrow, William, and Louis Bouche, eds. Robert Henri: His Life and Works with Forty Reproductions. New York, 1921: 9, 104-105, repro.
- Pousette-Dart, Robert. Robert Henri. New York, 1922: unpaginated repro.
- Perlman, Bennard B. "Robert Henri." Art Digest 28, no. 19 (1 August 1954): 14-15, repro.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 66, repro.
- Chilcott, Nicholas. A Champion of American Art. Chicago, 1975: 30.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 173, repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 200, 202.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 561, no. 855, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 200, repro.
- Leeds, Valerie Ann, and Jonathan Stuhlman. From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland. Exh. cat. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; Georgia O'Keefe Museum, Santa Fe; Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY. Charlotte, 2012: 144, no. 12, repro.