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 remarkable just-opened exhibit at the Mint Museum of Art Uptown. "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.
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"He was a portraitist at heart," says Jonathan Stuhlman, Mint curator of American art. "He loved engaging with people. No one was paying him to do this. He was doing what he loved."
Organized by the Mint, 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.
The exhibition marks a turn for the museum in its new uptown home, recalling a time when instead of relying on traveling shows it put together its own, backing them with a scholarly catalogue and sending them on tour.
The exhibit will be at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., in September. The O'Keeffe was interested, said curator Barbara Lynes, because both Henri and O'Keeffe were early modernists, although they went in different directions. "I wouldn't do a Henri show on my own but I'm delighted to have one," she says. In January, the show moves to the Hyde Collection in Glen Galls, N.Y.
Not long after Stuhlman joined the Mint five years ago, an out-of-the-blue phone call came. 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'd seen a Henri Irish portrait and filed away an idea for a show.
At the Mint, Stuhlman saw another, "My Friend Brien."
Both paintings were made on Achill Island, a remote place off the west coast of Ireland where Henri lived during the summer in 1913 and from 1924 to 1928. The Ohio native died in 1929 at age 64.
For a gathering of American art supporters at her house, LeClair suggested bringing in a speaker, Valerie Leeds, a Henri scholar who curated the last major show on the artist in 1994.
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 loaned biographic material on Henri.
Stuhlman liked the idea of building on a work in the Mint's collection. Both "My Friend Brien" and "Portrait of a Boy (Sonny Mac)" from the Norton are in the show. He also liked the idea of revealing something new about Henri.
For the artist, whose wife was Irish, Ireland became special. He bought an estate house on Achill Island called Corrymore, the only home he purchased, notes Stuhlman, that wasn't in New York.
Interaction and evolution
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, like art students, 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 here together 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.
Gallery owner Jerald Melberg, who put together and toured shows when he was a curator at the Mint in the late 1970s, believes curating exhibits is important for a museum.
"Not only does it show your local patrons and visitors that the museum is active and innovative but it also helps place the museum nationally and internationally," he says. "It gets the museum to a different level of respect."
That can mean museums would be willing to loan the Mint works, or make it a stop for their own traveling shows.
That new direction is important, says Stuhlman. But it's not the main point of the Henri show. "This," he says, "is a chance to bring fabulous paintings from all over the country to Charlotte."