Robert Henri was the leader of the Ashcan school, which was a twentieth century art movement that broke away from the conservative, traditional style of art popular in the late nineteenth century. A vocal and forceful man, Henri painted ordinary and exotic people, rather than the social elite, and his paintings of city streets and urban slums helped to introduce a modern realistic era of painting into American art.
Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad and was raised in Ohio and Nebraska. His father changed the family name to “Henri”, after shooting a man and fleeing to Atlantic City. Henri studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy where he became a devotee of realist Thomas Eakins, and a student of Anshutz. In 1888, Henri traveled to Paris, studying at the Academie Julien and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Although he incorporated impressionistic techniques for a brief period, by the mid 1890’s he had adopted the dark, tonal qualities of Hals, Velazquez and Rembrandt. His paintings were not morose nor did they carry a social message, rather they sparkled with life, reflecting his belief that joy and human dignity could be found anywhere. His paintings aimed to capture the feeling and sensation of life, rather than to represent well-designed canvases. In Philadelphia and later in New York City, his studio became a center of artistic activity, attracting many of the artists who would later be known as “The Eight”. In 1908, he organized their first exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City which shocked the conservative art world with its strong realism. The other seven artists were Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, John Sloan. A popular and influential teacher, he taught at many places, including the New York School of Art.
“The Laughing Kid” is an energetic portrait with quick broad brushstrokes. Our painting is one of many portraits that Henri painted depicting less fortunate children. Henri does an excellent job of capturing the energy and playfulness of the child who gently holds her doll. He used strong sweeps of boldly applied pigment, minimizing the number of brushstrokes, allowing him to show the essentials of the image.
In May of 1908, Henri secretly married his second wife, Marjorie Organ, an illustrator. Marjorie, along with several other women, served as models for a number of full-length portraits he painted during 1909-1911. In this cycle of portraits he shows female figures elegantly garbed in shawls, kimonos, or long dresses that produce a slender, attenuated effect. “Marjorie in a Yellow Shawl” is regarded as the best portrait of his wife’s character that he ever painted.