Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916, The Whitney Museum of Art
Robert Henri’s portrait of art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1916) is one of my favorite paintings from the exhibition Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, currently at the Whitney. Henri has captured the quintessential modern woman of the time: She has this exotic, louche quality in the way she is splayed on the couch, in the direct, coy look she gives us, in the exotic blue silk embroidered jacket and teal pajama pants she wears. Bohemians and art patrons were mad about Orientalism at the time, and her outfit recalls Paul Poiret’s Oriental-inspired couture of the early 1900s. Yet Whitney’s outfit is much lighter and more modern (Poiret may have abolished the corset, but he did design the constricting “hobble” skirt). Whitney’s jacket and pantsuit look a bit like Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s multicultural mash-ups today. Indeed, she was so ahead of her time that her husband refused to hang a portrait of his wife wearing pants in their Fifth Avenue home, for fear it would scandalize visitors.
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.”