Irish Girl (Mary O'Donnel)
Robert Earle Henri (American, 1865–1929)
61.28 x 51.43 cm (24 1/8 x 20 1/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Not On View
Robert Henri spent most summers travelling in both Europe and America looking for interesting individuals to paint, those whom he called, “my people.” Henri wrote, “My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only by gestures. But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man’s way, the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language-drawing and painting in color.” Henri’s favored subjects were those people whose faces expressed their humanity, beauty, and dignity, regardless of race or station.
In June of 1913, Henri and his Irish-born second wife, the artist and illustrator Marjorie Organ, retreated to Ireland for the summer. They eventually ended up in County Mayo, on the Island of Achill where they rented an isolated house on a steep hill on the Atlantic coast. In a letter to Boston collector John T. Spaulding, who acquired this painting in 1921, Henri described the sitter, Mary O’Donnel, a young Gaelic girl who was “shy and speechless in the presence of strangers” but could be seen gathering sea grass, and riding around the island on horseback, “her hair down her back and her strong legs and bare feet showing.”
In painting Mary, Henri demonstrated many of the tenets he passed on to students. In his influential collection of his art lessons, “The Art Spirit” (first published in 1923), Henri explained how to use color expressively. He could have been describing this portrait when he wrote, “the reason that a certain color in life, like the red in a young girl’s cheek, is beautiful, is that it manifests youth, health; in another sense, that it manifests her sensibility.” In another passage he describes how the color of a sitter’s cheek is not, “a spot of red, but is the culminating note of an order which runs through every part of the canvas signifying her sensitiveness and her health.” In keeping with this advice, Henri complemented the ruddiness of Mary O’Donnel’s complexion with her brilliant red sweater. The artist also noted her shyness, suggested by her averted glance and her nervously pursed lips, defined with touches of yellow pigment. Maintaining “the look of the eye has its correspondence in every part of the body,” Henri rendered Mary’s sparkling irises by allowing the lighter weave of the canvas to show through the palest blue stain of pigment.
Spaulding must have been drawn to Mary’s quiet presence and the dignity imbued in Henri’s portrait of her. Spaulding was an important collector who contributed nearly 10,000 artworks to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including thousands of Japanese prints. This was the only painting by Henri that Spaulding collected, acquiring it from the artist in 1921. Spaulding did collect additional works by Henri’s peers and students that now reside at the Museum of Fine Arts, including George Bellows “Emma in Black Print” [48.518]; Edward Hopper’s “Drug Store” [48.564]; Rockwell Kent’s “Maine Coast, Winter” [48.567]; Ernest Lawson’s “Westchester Hills” [48.571]; and George Luk’s “Jenny” [48.573] and “A Clown” [48.574].
Lower right: Robert Henri
The artist; John T. Spaulding, Boston, about 1921; to MFA, 1948, gift of John T. Spaulding.
Bequest of John T. Spaulding