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Robert Torchia, “Robert Henri/Catharine/1913,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed October 03, 2022).

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Aug 09, 2018 Version

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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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] He also traced his ancestry to Ireland, and in New York had befriended the expatriate Irish portraitist and writer John Butler Yeats, father of the noted poet William Butler Yeats. After traveling around the country the Henris decided to stay near the isolated fishing villages of Keel and Dooagh, remaining there until the end of September. Henri returned to Achill Island regularly until his death in 1929.

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.”[4] On Achill Island Henri painted landscapes and portraits of local villagers, including a large number of children. In a letter to John and Dolly Sloan, Henri’s wife reported that “Bob expects to do great things—millions of all kinds of children in the most primitive dresses—the[y] weave and dye their own goods—and the effects are stunning.”[5] The description that Henri gave his friend and patron William J. Johnson about how he came to paint Catharine captures the flavor of his remote location:

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.[6]

Henri stated that Catharine was related to Brien O’Malley, the elderly subject of his Guide to Croaghan [fig. 1], and she has recently been tentatively identified as his granddaughter.[7] No biographical information about Catharine survives, but she was one of the many children who hiked up to Corrymore and posed in Henri’s house.[8]

Because of its immense charm, spontaneity, and appealing subject, Catharine has always been one of Henri’s most popular and reproduced portraits.[9] Much of the painting’s success can be attributed to Catharine’s extraordinarily expressive eyes. Homer’s observation about another of Henri’s portraits of an Irish child, Patrick (1913, private collection, Shawnee Mission, KS), is also appropriate here: the artist drew attention to “the alert glance of the eyes peering intently at the spectator—one of Henri’s favorite devices for establishing the subject as a living, communicating being.”[10] The exceptionally vigorous brushwork is typical of Henri’s work of this period, and the bright palette, with its complex gradations of fleshtones, reflects the influence of Hardesty Gillmore Maratta’s system of color theory.[11] Shortly after Johnson acquired the painting, a Pittsburgh critic pronounced it one of Henri's “best, most interesting and most attractive child pictures. Workmanship broad and sure, masterly, with great richness of surface and harmony of tone; full of loving tenderness, of vitality and feeling of childlife; beautiful, charming, a canvas that would command attention and admiration in any collection.”[12] According to the donor, the dealer William Macbeth’s son Robert deemed it Henri’s second best work after Lady in White (destroyed) and referred to it as the “million dollar Henri” in the belief that it would someday fetch that sum.[13]

Robert Torchia

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;[1] gift 1948 to NGA.

Exhibition History
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.
Technical Summary

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.[1] The paint surface is in very good condition. In 2001, the painting was cleaned and inpainted along the edges and at the bottom left. At that time it was also coated with a synthetic resin varnish.

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.
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