Beautiful people and compelling portraiture don’t have to be synonymous, a point that Robert Henri’s portraits of Thomas MacNamara in From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri & Ireland firmly reinforce. As the subject of “Sandy” and “Portrait of a Boy (Sonny Mac),” MacNamara is woefully bucktoothed and maintains bemused, dopey expressions.
While he isn’t nearly as good-looking as any of the other Irish children featured in From New York to Corrymore, MacNamara makes an excellent subject—a proudly human presence who allows Henri ample room to channel the real and relatable.
Henri (1865-1929) gained initial fame as a member of The Eight, a band of painters renowned for depicting everyday life in New York’s poorer sections. Also a lover of travel, Henri was fond of making portraits of the folks he met on his journeys.
From New York to Corrymore focuses on the work he made while visiting Achill Island, a mountainous, sparsely populated place off the coast of Ireland. There Henri rented, and later purchased, an estate called Corrymore.
After experimenting with child portraiture in the US, Holland and Spain, Henri voraciously utilized the Achill youths as subjects, averaging a painting a day during his stays. The 40-some oil paintings in From New York to Corrymore are the product of several years’ work between 1909 and 1928. Three-quarters of his Corrymore work consists of child portraiture.
Henri’s attraction to children as subjects originated from a romanticized view of them. At various times, the painter called them “the great possibility, the independent individual,” “living energies” and “no better subject for painting.”
The majority of his models in Corrymore look alike without being homogeneous, sharing dainty, attractive features, ruddy cheeks and blue eyes. Dozens of Henri’s subjects are outright adorable, including the various incarnations of Tom Cafferty and his portrayals of little blonde Annie Lavelle. But the children with off-beat expressions or unusual poses—those who, in effect, subtly reject Henri’s own simplistic view of children—are the most powerful.
The star of “Thomas in His Red Coat,” a boy wearing a bold red robe and stationed against a green drape, stands with arms crossed and a pointedly thoughtful, self-assured expression—almost as though he had just inherited a throne and is confidently preparing to wield considerable power.
Henri often emphasizes his subjects’ innocence and naiveté, but Thomas’ sly sense of pride offers, almost unwittingly, a more complex view. The lad knows he’s important, if only because he’s having his portrait taken.
In the fundamentally, transparently human way children do, he loves the attention.
Young Thomas meets his equal and opposite force of character in the subject of “Irish Lass,” a girl in ponytails and an ordinary black dress whose expression exhibits an oddly bewitching misery. Her evident discomfort—stark in Henri’s broad brushstrokes and restrained palette—is acute.
Henri’s genius lies in his ability to capture discrete bursts of humanity—such as the moment when a girl grows up and tires of being painted as a child.