At the turn of the twentieth century, Robert Henri introduced American audiences to a radical new mode of portraiture characterized by a dark palette, gestural brushwork, and spare compositions that focused intensely on the subject’s face. The artist was at the height of his popularity when he painted Ziegfeld Follies actress and dancer Jesseca Penn. Although he misspelled the model’s name in his record book, he faithfully captured her confident, modern gaze and bold beauty.
The artist deftly managed the challenge of painting black on black, the silk of Penn’s gown asserting itself in wrinkles and folds. The currents running through Penn’s costume subtly remind the viewer that she was a dancer by profession. It is no surprise that Henri encouraged budding portraitists to “make the forms of a garment so that a trip through its hills and dales will be delightful.”