Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson Street, Santa Fe, 505-946-1000

There is nothing quite like a thoughtful retrospective of an artist’s work to encourage appreciation of that person’s talents and interests. With the good fortune to have the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum right here in Santa Fe, art lovers throughout the year get to enjoy in full the riches of this American icon. The museum currently has another artistic option, though, bringing to the City Different the retrospective of a very different artist and contemporary of O’Keeffe. Originally curated by the Mint Museum of Charlotte, North Carolina, this new exhibit, entitled From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland, is a precious little gem comprised of works that this New York artist created on his travels in Ireland in the early 1900’s.

West Coast of Ireland 1913, Robert Henri

As a student of art, I was familiar with Mr. Henri, but generally one sees perhaps a single or occasionally two pieces at a time on a visit to any number of American museums, and indeed the retrospective is culled from many recognizable venues. This exhibit, while specifically limited to the Irish paintings, still offers quite a selection for those who may not know his work. The bulk of the exhibit features portraits of fresh-faced children, with a few adult sitters and several landscapes. And I finally learned definitively how to pronounce his last name, which may sound French but is actually pronounced “Hen-Rye!” Not that it was his original name, apparently, having begun his life with the surname “Lee” and a past to apparently escape. But that’s a story you can learn from one of the helpful museum docents like Tom, who can help make viewing this exhibit a more complete and complex experience.

In 1913, Mr. Henri and his wife discovered the appealingly rugged Achill Island, where Corrymore became their summer home until his death in 1929. Although Henri had no children of his own, he obviously enjoyed the challenge of painting the young, with their restless inability to sit still and pose, calling them “living energies.” He sensed that “it is the children that have not yet been buried under…..the conventions and details that burden most adults,” and the sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks in the paintings convey that spirit. Yet his attraction to these wee Irish folk also bears witness to what must have been a more somber life. Many of the children lack a real smile and look somewhat sober, perhaps a reflection of the difficult lives they led, as anyone who has ever read Frank McCourt’s evocative Angela’s Ashes will recognize.

Irish Boy (Thomas Cafferty) 1925, Robert Henri

Her Sunday Shawl 1924, Robert Henri

My affable docent also pointed out that Henri was drawn to create portraits of the common people, the less-noticed and even disenfranchised population, the children, the Irish, and in his visits out west, the Native Americans. In fact, his portrait of a unnamed young girl in a shawl said New Mexico via Eire! He generally made a point of naming the majority of his subjects in his titles. When one sees a portrait of Catherine, as a tiny tot, her bright eyes all pupil in 1913, one can recognize her by both face and name when she reappears in a portrait from 1924, in which her steady blue gaze shows a lass maturing into a woman.  I enjoyed seeing Pat (an impish redhead painted in 1913) and jaunty Jimmy O’D, with his hat impudently cocked to one side in 1925. Many of the portraits are painted with a bright palette, but I particularly responded to Mary Agnes, 1924, depicted in mixed and muted hues.

Untitled (Claudia O’Keeffe) 1907-08 Georgia O’Keeffe

This new show is definitely worth a look, even if you’re headed there specifically to see the work of Georgia O’Keeffe herself. The experience is enhanced by the museum’s wise curatorial decision to include some portraiture by O’Keeffe in the 70 pieces of her work also on display in the galleries. I don’t recall seeing many faces before in her oeuvre, and it was a revelation to see her deft touch capturing some of those she chose to depict, although her portrait of Paul Strand is an archetypal O’Keeffian abstraction.

Santa Fe is lucky to have the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, as well as its proficient research staff and dedicated educational outreach services.  If seeing these lively portraits whets your interest, you can pick up some tips at some of the hands-on programs offered at the Education Annex. And O’Keeffe-loving locals are invited to attend docent training. The show is up until January 15, 2012, and we have ample opportunity – and intention – to return….hope you can too!

Copyright photographs courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum