Robert Henri’s California Portraits: Realism, Race, and Region, 1914 – 25

  • A painting of a Black boy dressed in shorts, suspenders, and a white collared shirt. He is sleeping in a wingback chair that has a green leaf pattern fabric.

    Robert Henri
    The Failure of Sylvester, 1914
    Oil on canvas
    41 × 33 inches
    Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art
    Photograph by Shannon L. Clark

  • A portrait of a young Asian female with her hair pulled back. She is dressed in a light colored kimono against an orange-yellowish background. Wide brush strokes were used to paint this portrait.

    Robert Henri
    Tam Gan, 1914
    Oil on canvas
    24 × 20 inches
    Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

  • A painting of a young, red-headed woman dressed in a white blouse with a red cardigan. The background is painted with hues of yellow, green, and blue using wide brush strokes.

    Robert Henri
    The Beach Hat, 1914
    Oil on canvas
    24 × 20 inches
    Detroit Institute of Arts
    City of Detroit Purchase 

American artist Robert Henri (1865 – 1929), one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century, made the first of his three trips to California in 1914. Henri was enchanted by the light, landscape, and the people he encountered during his sojourns here—and was compelled by the cultural diversity that has come to define California. This closely focused exhibition of approximately a dozen works reveals Henri’s fascination with the nations’ growing diversity. He turned away from his lucrative society portraits to paint everyday working people: Native Americans, African Americans, and newly arrived immigrants from China and Mexico. Ironically, he worked in California during an era marked by anti-immigrant exclusionary laws. To viewers today, Henri’s work may appear double-edged—dignifying in intent but subject to a troublesome exoticizing of the “other” (those he called “interesting people”). Yet he considered himself a staunch progressive and his art also faces off against the discriminatory, racist legislation of the time. This exhibition includes approximately a dozen lush oil paintings that Henri executed in California. An accompanying exhibition of contemporary art will examine portraiture through the perspective of artists working today. Organized by the Laguna Art Museum, California. 

This exhibition is made possible, in part, by generous support from Don Head and Barbara Oshman.