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My Friend Brien

Robert Henri (American, 1865-1929)

Created: 1913
Materials:Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 41 x 33 inches

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Crist, Jr. in memory of John L. Crist, Sr.

Accession Number: 1966.14

Robert Henri was a charismatic and independent-minded teacher and artist, but he is best known today as the leader of the so-called “Ash Can School” of urban realists. His anti-academic stance that art should be based on the vibrant and frenetic life on the streets ruffled more than a few critical feathers, but served to unite the artists that gathered around him, such as George Bellows, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. Henri devoted much of his career to painting portraits—not only of prominent society figures, such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, but of people from all walks of life. 

Henri painted this picture of Brien O’Malley, his friend and guide, during his first visit to the town of Achill, Ireland, in 1913. With its bold brushwork and its unflinching depiction of O’Malley’s weather-beaten features, My Friend Brienis a clear testament to Henri’s belief that a painting should be as direct and frank a representation of its subject as possible. He wrote in 1915, just two years after completing this painting: “The people I like to paint are ‘my people,’ . . . people through whom the dignity of life is manifest . . . wherever I find them . . . my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language—drawing and painting in color.”