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Robert Torchia, “Robert Henri/Young Woman in White/1904,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/37005 (accessed October 19, 2018).

 

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Overview

Painted in a single day, Young Woman in White represents one of Robert Henri’s favorite professional models, the Czech-born Eugenie Stein. Henri is justly noted for the life-size, grand manner studio portraits of women, like this one, that he often sent to exhibitions to demonstrate his command of the full-length format. As its title suggests, this image is a monochromatic tonal study in the tradition of a painting that Henri greatly admired: James McNeil Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. As in Whistler’s complex early works, Henri sought to balance his aesthetic inclinations with an attention to certain less idealized realities of his sitter’s appearance. He did not intend his portraits to be simple, literal likenesses of specific individuals. Instead, he used them to explore abstract qualities he described as "another dimension—that fascinating fourth if you like—which has to do with your concept of the significance of the whole—that ultra something which always engages your interest more than mere facts of the person standing before you." His realist tendencies, while sometimes difficult for 21st-century viewers to ascertain, were duly noted by critics, one of whom described another of Henri’s portraits of Stein as representing “that grand dame of the disreputable with her toothless, sunken jaw, her leery eyes, her great befeathered hat, flamboyant dress, and brown kid gloves.”

Entry

Following the favorable critical reception of his Young Woman in Black (1902, Art Institute of Chicago), Robert Henri painted a number of similar life-size, grand manner studio portraits of professional and amateur models that he submitted to exhibitions to demonstrate his command of the full-length format. Two of the most important examples of this type date from 1904: Lady in Black (The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York), a portrait of his first wife, and Young Woman in White, a portrait of the Czech-born professional artist’s model Eugenie Stein. Henri may have been encouraged to pursue these types of studio portraits when his Girl in White Waist (1901, destroyed) was purchased in January 1904 by the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, thus becoming his first painting to enter an American museum’s permanent collection.

Known as "Zenka” or “Efzenka," Eugenie Stein was an immigrant, working class woman. She knew Dolly Sloan, the wife of Henri’s friend and artistic comrade, the painter John Sloan, who called her "a great girl, so ingenious, so paintable, the best professional model in New York probably, though my own experience is small."[1] Little is known about Stein, other than Sloan's statement that "she had strong opinions on politics and society and her English was odd but understandable."[2] Henri shared Sloan’s admiration of Eugenie and painted her a number of times.

Executed in a single day, Henri recorded the essential details of Stein’s clothing in Young Woman in White in his record book: "Yellow scarf, straw hat with white lace and black lace. White gloves half on."[3] Wearing a long white dress, Stein stands in profile with her hands clasped together at her waist. She is dramatically illuminated by a powerful source of light that emanates from her right. Her psychological disposition is mysterious: standing off-center and slightly withdrawn, she faces the light with an attitude of composed anticipation. Following the examples of Francisco de Goya and Édouard Manet, Henri imbued his subject with a powerful presence by placing her in a dark, empty setting that emphasizes the contours of her gown.[4] All the props common to portraits of the period are eliminated so that nothing distracts the viewer's attention from the model. Even the fluidly painted dress plays a subordinate role, adhering to Henri's admonition to his students to "never get drapery unless you do it to express its beauty on a woman."[5]

Henri ultimately did not intend his full-length portraits to be simple, literal likenesses of specific individuals. Instead, he used them to capture abstract qualities that he described as "another dimension—that fascinating fourth if you like—which has to do with your concept of the significance of the whole—that ultra something which always engages your interest more than mere facts of the person standing before you."[6] As its title declares, Young Woman in White is a monochromatic tonal study in the tradition of James McNeill Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, a painting that Henri greatly admired as "a fantasy . . . a spiritual expression" in which “the frailty and delicacy of her dress are opposed to the solidity and strength of her."[7] This observation applies equally well to Young Woman in White, which, like Whistler’s complex early works, balances aestheticism with an attention to the realities of the sitter’s physical appearance.

The painting occupies a unique place along the spectrum between aestheticism and realism. Henri’s adherence to realism in Young Woman in White clearly distinguishes it from the conventional narrow-waisted and youthful ideals of feminine beauty that often appeared in the formal exhibition portraits by his academically oriented contemporaries John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.[8] Alternately, Henri’s aesthetic proclivities in this instance become evident when the painting is juxtaposed with the three-quarter-length portrait of 1904, Zenka (Portrait of Eugenie Stein), in which he portrays Stein, as one critic later put it, as the “grand dame of the disreputable with her toothless, sunken jaw, her leery eyes, her great befeathered hat, flamboyant dress, and brown kid gloves.”[9] Both works bear comparison to Alfred H. Maurer’s contemporary portrait Jeanne (c. 1904, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), whose subject even more blatantly flaunts the traditional social and artistic conventions of the day, as she raises a cigarette to her lips and peers brazenly at the viewer from under her outlandish straw hat.

Robert Torchia

August 17, 2018

Inscription

lower left: Robert Henri; upper left reverse: 19 / C; on both left and right tacking margins: STEIN PROFILE

Provenance

The artist [1865-1929]; by inheritance to his wife, Marjorie Organ Henri [1886-1930], New York; the Henri estate; Marjorie's sister and the artist's sister-in-law, Violet Organ [d. 1959], New York, by 1937;[1] gift 1949 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1904
An Exhibition of Portraits, The Union League Club, New York, 1904, no. 16, as Woman in White.
1931
Memorial Exhibition of the Work of Robert Henri, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March-April 1931, no. 23, repro., as Young Woman in White--Profile.
1931
Robert Henri Memorial Exhibition, Baltimore Museum of Art, May 1931, no. 16, repro.
1932
Entering the Twentieth Century: Oils, Watercolors, Drawings, Springfield Art Museum, Massachusetts; Howard Young Galleries, New York, October 1932, no. 24.
1932
Memorial Exhibition of the Work of Robert Henri, Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey, January 1932, no catalogue.
1933
Memorial Exhibition, Philadelphia Art Alliance, 1933. [According to the Artist's Record Book, added after his death]
1936
Carson-Pirie-Scott Galleries, Chicago, 1936. [According to the Artist's Record Book, added after his death]
1937
New York Realists 1900-1914, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1937, no. 30, repro., as Young Woman in White--Profile.
1939
Robert Henri Today, Fifth Avenue Galleries of Grand Central Art Galleries, Inc., New York, 1939, no. 3.
1940
Survey of American Painting, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1940, no. 217, as Young Woman in White--Profile.
1946
American Painting from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Tate Gallery, London, 1946, no. 102.
1951
The 75th Anniversary Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture by 75 Artists Associated with the Art Students League of New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1951, no. 21, repro.
1955
The One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1955, no. 106, repro.
1965
Robert Henri 1865-1929-1965: An exhibition held in observance of the centennial of the artist's birth, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1965, no. 25.
1969
Robert Henri: Painter-Teacher-Prophet, New York Cultural Center, 1969, addenda no. 1, repro.
1982
Japanese Artists Who Studied in U.S.A. and The American Scene, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1982, no. 63, repro.
1984
Robert Henri, Painter, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Pennsylvania State Univ. Museum of Art, University Park; Cincinnati Art Museum; Phoenix Art Museum; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1984-1985, no. 44, repro.
Technical Summary

The unlined, medium-weight, plain-weave fabric was remounted on an old but nonoriginal stretcher. The tacking margins are intact.[1] The artist prepared the thick, smooth, grey ground that partially covers the tacking margins. Oil paint was applied thickly in complex layers with moderate to high impasto. X-radiographs suggest that the subject’s face was originally in a frontal position, and that the left side of her body extended much farther to the right. These changes were not apparent during infrared examination.[2] Other than minor areas of retouching in the subject’s face, the background, and the bottom edge, the painting is in very good condition. The surface was coated with a thick layer of randomly and unevenly applied natural resin varnish, which is now markedly discolored. The inscription "19/C" is located on the upper left reverse of the canvas.

Bibliography
1931
Read, Helen Appleton. Robert Henri. American Artist Series, Whitney Museum of American Art. New York, 1931: 44-45, repro.
1932
"The Art Market," Parnassus 4, no. 5 (October 1932): 13, repro.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 328, repro.
1970
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 66, repro.
1975
Scott, David W. John Sloan. New York, 1975: 33-34, repro.
1980
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 175, repro.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: no. 48, color repro.
1981
Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 198, 201, 202.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 561, no. 854, color repro.
1988
Homer, William Innes. Robert Henri and His Circle. Ithaca, 1969; rev. ed, New York, 1988: 238, fig. 52.
1988
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 154, no. 54, color repro.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 199, repro.
1994
Leeds, Valerie Ann. My People: The Portraits of Robert Henri. Exh. cat. Orlando Museum of Art; Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale; Columbus Museum, GA, 1994-1995. Orlando and Seattle, 1994: 21, fig. 2.
1994
Weinberg, H. Barbara, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry. American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art. New York, 1994: 265.
1997
Perlman, Bennard B., ed. Revolutionaries of Realism: The Letters of John Sloan and Robert Henri. Princeton, 1997: ix, fig. 39.
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