Once ridiculed, Irish works now woo admirers

CorrespondentMay 22, 2011 

  • Where: Mint Museum Uptown, 500 S. Tryon St., Charlotte

    When: Through Aug. 7. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

    Cost: $10 adults; $8 students and seniors; $5 ages 5-17; free members and 4 and under; free 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays.

    Information: 704-337-2000; www.mintmuseum.org.

The child, a little girl with an unruly mop of blond hair, looks alert and smart, her strikingly blue eyes staring as the sun bathes her face and highlights her dress.

The sense that she's been caught in a moment snatched from life is just what painter Robert Henri was after when he sat her in his studio and brushed paint on canvas.

The painting, "The Blue Plaid Dress (Annie)," is in a new exhibit at Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte.

"From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland" features more than 40 paintings - mostly portraits of children - made by the noted early 20th-century American artist.

Henri (pronounced "hen-RYE") is best known as the leader of the Ashcan School, a group of painters that took art into the streets of urban America, painting barkeeps, prizefighters and dance hall chorines.

But his art encompassed more, and by offering a look at the Irish works for the first time the exhibit gives a fuller sense of his career.

"He was a portraitist at heart," said Jonathan Stuhlman, curator of American art for the Mint. "He loved engaging with people. No one was paying him to do this. He was doing what he loved."

The show has works borrowed from museums and private collectors from around the country. The portrait of "Old Johnnie" from the Baltimore Museum of Art is reunited with "Old Johnnie's Wife" from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Not long after he joined the Mint five years ago, an out-of-the-blue phone call hit Stuhlman. Janet LeClair, who lived in Charlotte, wanted to make contact with the museum. An art lover, she also was the great-niece of Robert Henri.

This bit of serendipity resonated with the new curator, who was brought to the Mint to revitalize the American art program. At the Norton Museum of Art in Florida, his previous employer, he had seen a Henri Irish portrait and filed away an idea for a show.

For a gathering of American art supporters at her house, LeClair suggested bringing in a speaker, Valerie Leeds, a Henri scholar. When Stuhlman found Leeds also wanted to do a show on the Irish paintings, he realized he had a partner. They decided to join forces as co-curators and began putting together a list of the paintings they wanted. LeClair lent biographic material on Henri.

For the artist, whose wife was Irish, Ireland became special. He bought an estate house on Achill Island, a remote place off the west coast of Ireland, called Corrymore.

During much of his career, Henri was an influential teacher. One of his students was Edward Hopper. The Mint exhibit includes an interactive section where visitors can make a self-portrait or draw a life-size virtual model projected on the wall.

As an artist, Henri changed and grew. He began as an academic painter, moved on to Impressionism and abandoned that for Realism with fellow Ashcan painters. They got that derisive name because it was said they would paint anything - even an old ashcan.

In Ireland at the end of his career, Henri experimented with color and composition, emphasizing simple means and direct expression. His brushwork loosened and some areas such as little Annie's plaid dress became abstract.

Taking time off only for fly fishing, Henri produced hundreds of paintings, many seen together in Charlotte for the first time.

The Henri show is one of several produced recently by the Mint. The Mint Museum of Craft + Design has on view an exhibit it curated on metalsmith Gary Lee Noffke. In September, the art museum will open a major show on Charlotte native Romare Bearden; it will tour nationally.

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