Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929), 'Gregorita with the Santa Clara Bowl,' 1917. Oil on canvas, 32 by 26 inches. Gift of Arthur W. Kincade in memory of his wife, Josephine Kincade

Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929)

Gregorita with the Santa Clara Bowl, 1917
Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 in.
Gift of Arthur W. Kincade in memory of his wife, Josephine Kincade

Robert Henri played a significant role in the American art world of the early twentieth century, when he and seven other trailblazing artists--Arthur B. Davies, William J. Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan--displayed their depictions of everyday city life, including the lives of poor people, in New York galleries. Not all viewers appreciated the efforts of this group, which was called The Eight. After one critic suggested throwing their works into an ash can, several of these artists, along with others such as George Bellows and Edward Hopper who likewise painted frank urban scenes, collectively became known as the Ashcan school.

Henri's quick, fluid painting style and proletarian subject matter--inspired by Frans Hals, Édouard Manet, and Diego Velásquez--no longer seemed radical in the wake of the Armory Show, the mammoth 1913 exhibition of works by Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and many others that opened many American eyes to modernism for the first time. In 1914, searching for new inspiration and, perhaps, for a new aesthetic direction, Henri traveled to the American West. His respect for Native Americans and Hispanics prompted him to visit the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, where the cultures of those peoples were highlighted. There he met Dr. Edgar L. Hewitt, a New Mexico ethnologist, who secured a workspace for him in Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors Museum. Over the course of three stays in New Mexico, Henri produced more than two hundred paintings, mostly portraits of Native Americans and Hispanics.

Henri painted the model who posed for Gregorita with the Santa Clara Bowl several times. The young woman sits next to a large storage jar, which she grasps with her right hand. The frontal presentation and direct gaze are typical of Henri's portraits. He hoped viewers would respond to his subjects with respect and empathy and thus recognize their shared humanity. At the same time, he wanted viewers to distance themselves from his subjects, acknowledging them as representatives of their races; this perspective is rooted in nineteenth-century social science, which advocated the acceptance of distinct races with shared identifying characteristics. Before and after spending time in New Mexico, Henri went to Spain and Ireland, producing many more portraits that displayed both the individuals’ personalities and what he (and many others) considered traits that typified their ethnicities.

Henri's musings about art, assembled in the book The Art Spirit (1923), brought him a stronger reputation both as a theorist and as a painter. Artists today still find inspiration in his admonition to seek beauty in everyday life.

--Timothy R. Rodgers
Scottsdale (Arizona) Museum of Contemporary Art