Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on February 20, 2006 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:


Robert Henri: La Reina Mora

by Michael Andrew Marlais


The Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine recently purchased La Reina Mora, a major portrait by Robert Henri. Although the painting was shown several times in the years just after its completion in September 1906, it has remained out of public view, in a private collection, for much of the century.[1] Painted when Henri was forty-one, La Reina Mora demonstrates the artist's command of the fluid brushwork and dashing portrait manner of both Edouard Manet and Diego Velázquez. With its brilliantly brushed surface and striking physical presence, La Reina Mora shows Henri at the height of his talent.

Like his idol Edouard Manet, Robert Henri was entranced by Spain. He first visited the country in 1900 when he was thirty-five years old. In Madrid, Henri copied paintings by Diego Velázquez, absorbing lessons in portraiture, as had Manet and John Singer Sargent before him. While Henri's attraction to Spanish portraiture may have been a bit old-fashioned in 1900 -- French avant-garde interest in Spanish art had peaked in the 1860s -- it was perfectly in line with the teaching atmosphere Henri would have encountered in the Parisian art schools he attended. The direct manner of Velázquez appealed to Henri, who had come to reject the sentimentality and artificiality of old style academic painting as well as the new style of choice, American impressionism. Henri believed that artists should paint only subjects that held personal, emotional appeal, and Spain, with its genuine and forthright people, profoundly affected him.[2]

In the summer of 1906, Henri took a group of students from the New York School of Art to Madrid. Such trips were common for Americans at the time. William Merritt Chase made a cottage industry of leading student groups to the continent during the summer, and Henri was acting as stand-in for Chase, who had chosen to remain at Shinnecock on Long Island that year.[3] Henri's group set sail for Gibraltar on June 6, almost six months to the day after the death of Henri's first wife, Linda. On June 29 Henri wrote back to his parents, "I can't help but think a great deal of Lindaof when she and I were here together."[4] Yet he was also capable of mentioning, in the same letter, "two mighty interesting good looking daughters" of Carmona, his hostess for a time that summer. In both life and art Robert Henri was a practical realist, aware of the past but intent on the here and now. La Reina Mora, with its intense realism and its references to both Manet and Velázquez, is a case in point.

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