Artist who fell in love with the rugged beauty of Achill

 

For artist Robert Henri, Achill was a scene out of The Playboy of the Western World. Margaret Stenz outlines the legacy of his six Irish summers

Ninety years ago this summer the celebrated American artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929) fell in love with the wild landscape and traditional culture of Achill Island.

During his six summers on the island he produced hundreds of portraits of local people.

These paintings hang in museums across the United States, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They serve as a marvellous link to Achill's past while also revealing an outsider's view of Irish history and culture.

One of the most famous and influential American artists of his day, Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) had vaulted into the public eye in 1908 with his controversial group show, The Eight.

He and seven friends gained notoriety for their "shocking" canvases depicting scenes of American life, including the urban poor. Though he is most often associated with New York City scenes, in fact most of Henri's portraits depict ordinary people whom he met on his annual summer travels to France, Holland, Spain and Ireland.

It was in the summer of 1913 that Henri and his Irish-born wife Marjorie accidentally discovered Achill Island. After spending several weeks touring Ireland, they took a day trip to Achill, where they struck up a friendship with the proprietor of the Slievemore Hotel (still located in Dugort).

The proprietor, Pat Sheridan, a landscape and marine painter, extolled Achill's charms and convinced them to stay on for the summer. The Henris rented the rambling Corrymore House, once owned by the notorious Capt Charles Boycott and located at the western end of the island above the villages of Dooagh and Keel. That summer Henri alternated his time between painting, trout fishing on Keel Lake, and tramping across the island's hilly terrain with local guide Brian O'Malley. In 1924 they purchased Corrymore House and returned every year for the next four years.

A portraitist by profession, Henri was keenly interested in Achill people and their traditional way of life. One of his subjects was Brian O'Malley, coachman and well-known local guide. Henri thought him "one of the great characters of the island. He is 76, is quite certain that the earth stands still and does not revolve, and can take his tourists' extra luggage on his back and climb up like a goat. He has seen ghosts, fairies and gnomes . . . and claims descent from the celebrated lady who once ruled over this part of Ireland."

Among Henri's most famous canvases are Himself and Herself, who face each other in side by side portraits. "Old Johnnie" Cummings and his wife regard the visitor with a mix of bemusement and boredom. Biddie is quite bundled up in layers of colourful skirts, shawls, and head scarves, as was customary for Achill ladies of that day. Johnnie sports a brown vest and two-toned jacket. The portraits were a hit in the US, prompting one critic to write that "The bewitching old man and the apple-cheeked old woman . . . are as real to the life and the sod of the old country as can be."

Henri's favourite models were the children of Keel and Dooagh, including Mary O'Donnell, daughter of Corrymore House's caretakers, Birdeen and Tom McNamara, and the Lavelle and Cafferkey children, many of whom were no more than four or five years of age.

Henri enticed the shy children into his studio with the promise of bread and jam, Victrola music, and the model's wage of half a crown.

While undoubtedly the children had more free time to pose for Henri than the island's hardworking adults, they represented for him not only the innocence of childhood, but also Irish tradition, passed from generation to generation, and Achill's focus on family life and community. These values, he believed, were quickly being pushed away by English colonialism and modern industrial society in general.

Why would a famous American artist visit this desolate outpost instead of the popular artist colonies in France, Italy, Holland, or the US? Why paint peasants and not wealthy patrons? What brought Henri to Achill?

Not Paul Henry, who lived and painted on the island for many years beginning in 1910. There is no evidence that the two ever met, though they shared mutual friends. Rather, Henri's pilgrimage was influenced by his friendship with Irish expatriates in New York, notably John Butler Yeats, himself an accomplished portraitist and father of poet William Butler Yeats and painter Jack Yeats. An engaging conversationalist, lecturer, and essayist, the elder Yeats was a regular guest at Henri's studio parties.

These were often highlighted by Yeats's inspired readings of works by his son, Lady Gregory, or Synge, or by his reports of the Irish scene from letters or memories. Henri's close friend, the painter John Sloan, regarded Yeats as a father figure. Henri painted Yeats's portrait in 1909, and later made a visit to Dublin to view Yeats's canvases, afterwards proclaiming him "the greatest British painter of the Victorian era."

Henri was also an ardent fan of the books of George Moore and James Stephens, especially Stephens's The Crock of Gold. J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World made quite an impression on Henri when he saw it performed in New York in 1911. He often told friends Achill was "all just like the Playboy and like nothing else."

Most of Henri's paintings are in the US, though one of his Achill landscapes hangs at the Ulster Museum. Visitors to Achill can see reproductions of many of Henri's works decorating the walls of the Boley House Restaurant in Keel.

• Margaret Stenz is an art historian specializing in the art of the US. Her PhD dissertation, Primitivism and Nationalism in the Portraiture of Robert Henri, for the City University of New York, is due to form part of a full length book. She is a research associate in American Art at Brooklyn Museum of Art.