A dedicated teacher and exhibition organizer, extended summer and fall sojourns were Robert Henri’s most productive seasons when he was free to devote himself to painting. In the summer of 1915, with George and Emma Bellows, Henri, and his wife Marjorie, visited Ogunquit, Maine, which was becoming known as an artist colony. It was during this stay that he painted Thammy.
The reputation of Robert Henri, one of the key figures in the history of American portraiture was defined by his quest for painting interesting types. By the teens, he achieved artistic maturity as he moved beyond the dark monochromatic grand manner style portraits reminiscent of Manet, Whistler, Sargent, and Eakins, he had been submitting to juried shows. This period, during which he painted Thammy, marks the crystallization of his signature style, which has been divested of the historic influences seen in his earlier production.
His likenesses of children are among his best known and most celebrated. Breaking with the tradition of society portraiture, Henri most often chose models who struck an emotional chord with him or who were interesting, as he noted in his most famous quote:
The people I like to paint are “my people,” whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom the dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines nature intended…and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language—drawing and painting in color.11 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, Margery Ryerson, ed., (1923), reprint (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 143.
He began painting children with frequency on his 1907 trip to Holland and he periodically returned to younger subjects, notably in the summer of 1915 when he visited Ogunquit, Maine. Disappointed with the staid subjects whom he initially encountered, he soon found a number of lively children that he painted, including Lily Cow, Nelson, Sammy, and Thammy.
Henri’s painting technique was defined by broad expressive brushstrokes executed with assurance and fluidity, creating a sense of immediacy to his likenesses. His palettes also evolved into richer shades and by 1915, he was achieving particular note for his skills as a colorist. In other studies done later during the visit to Ogunquit, Henri’s color investigations reached a new level with unusual juxtapositions of brilliant color. In Thammy, he can be seen commencing with these experimentations using more opulent palettes, evident in the recurrent red, blue, and yellow, that comprise the triad of colors he used in different blended tones and shades, particularly with the green background that emphasizes the visage of the young girl—a device on which Henri often relied. Many of the concepts Henri initiated in his portraits of 1915 he continued to explore in his later career, most notably in his late Irish portraits of children.
Thammy was a quintessential type of child to which Henri was drawn, as he asserted, “What I am after is the freshness and wonder of their spirit.”22 Violet Organ, “Robert Henri: His Life and Letters,” unpublished manuscript,” Estate of Robert Henri, LeClair Family Collection, p. 99. He noted her black sparkling eyes and black ringlets in his record book,33 Artist’s Record Book, Estate of Robert Henri, LeClair Family Collection. and he adeptly captured the essence of her exuberance and spirited energy in this oil likeness.