Robert Henri, Lady in Black Velvet (Portrait of Eulabee Dix Becker), 1911, The High Museum
American artist Robert Henri was, along with Everett Shinn (whose painting Revue I posted a few days ago), part of the Ashcan School that influenced Edward Hopper. This is one of two portraits of the fashionable painter Eulabee Dix, a theatrical woman who did miniature portraits and designed her own clothes (Henri’s first painting of Dix is of her in her wedding dress). Her black velvet dress and wide-brimmed hat must have looked quite daring in her new hometown of Buffalo, where she moved with her husband after their wedding; she certainly dressed to set herself apart as a Bohemian intellectual.
Velvet is, historically, the fabric of kings and royalty, but it also has strong ties to the avant garde and Bohemia. Oscar Wilde, for example, wore velvet breaches, jackets and capes. The punk rock poetess Patti Smith in her book Just Kids writes very fondly of a certain black velvet dress that she wore for several important occasions throughout her past, including to her best friend — and former lover — Robert Mapplethorpe’s funeral. Henri himself captured the complexity and seductiveness of the fabric in his 1923 book The Art Spirit, saying, “Velvet is rich, caressing; its depths are mysterious, obscure.”