Robert Henri is best known as the leader of the Eight—the anti-establishment artists whose 1908 breakaway exhibition at New York’s Macbeth Gallery led to the formation of the Ashcan school, one of the earliest modernist movements in American art. Henri encouraged the artists under his influence—who also included his many students at the New York School of Art, the Art Students League, and other institutions—to embrace subject matter in their art that was urban and sometimes gritty or unattractive, eschewing the romantic approach that had previously typified American art.
Henri’s own paintings were largely landscapes or, especially, portraits. Colorful people from all walks of life were a mainstay of his work. He referred to them as “my people,” or persons “through whom dignity of life is manifest.” One of his favorite places to visit and to paint was Spain, and it was during one of his several trips there with students that he made the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s Modiste of Madrid in July 1906. He was particularly taken by Spain and painted numerous engaging portraits of its citizens during his stay in Madrid that summer. Many of these are in the full-length format that connects his work with two Spanish artists he greatly admired, Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) and Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Among these are paintings from life of the famous bullfighter Felix Asiego and of the renowned Andalusian dancer Milagros Moreno, plus two portraits of the Madrid dressmaker depicted in the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s painting, whom he called “Modiste” (after the French word meaning “dressmaker” or “milliner”). Henri, familiar with both Spanish and French, continued to use modiste—similar to modista, a Spanish word with a like meaning—when he recorded the MMAA painting in his inventory book. The second full-length painting of this subject, titled Spanish Girl of Madrid (1908), was painted without the model posing again, as Henri noted in his diary. He must have found the first version to be particularly satisfying, since it was one of three works he selected from his Spanish production of 1906 to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts early the next year.
The subject’s expression in Modiste of Madrid indicates an imperturbable personality lurking beneath the modest dressmaker’s handsome face. Her “large eyes with strong lashes”  penetrate into the viewer’s consciousness, and the boldness of her stare recalls Henri’s description of gypsies—another Spanish subject he frequently explored—as “proud as if each one was a king or queen.”
Henri’s mature style is characterized by bravura handling of paint that lends immediacy to his works. His masterful handling of pigment in Modiste of Madrid includes energetic and thrilling slashes of paint and subtle, refined combinations of color. The bold description of the young woman’s facial features, and the loosely applied blacks and olive tans of her garments, are relieved with touches of bright color. Some of these are natural, as in the pink and peach tones of her lips, while some are more random or abstract, as in the vertical line of aqua that punctuates a shadow on her bodice, or the blue border between her white blouse and cream skirt that accentuates the narrowness of her waist. As with another of his artistic influences, French impressionist Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Henri tended to create his images with few half-tones, building up form with contrasts of lighter and darker color.
Like many of Henri’s portraits, Modiste of Madrid recalls the work of Spanish artists Velázquez and Goya, two particular favorites whose works Henri studied during his frequent trips abroad. During his first trip to Madrid, in 1900, he copied several works by Velázquez in the Prado museum, including the impressive full-length portrait, Queen Maria Anna of Austria. Also at the Prado during that trip, Henri saw an extensive exhibition of Goya’s work, including the painting Marquesa de Pontejos. Henri’s Modiste may have drawn inspiration from both of these works, which it resembles in its subject’s frontal pose and the emphasis on her narrow waist. Another similarity to the Goya is her position with a foot protruding from under her skirt. (Both show in the Goya portrait.) Henri admired Goya’s ability to paint what deeply impressed him; he referred to the Spanish painter as a “genius” and admired the “immeasurable realities” beneath the surface appearance of his portraits. Although Goya’s painting of the Marquesa was perhaps not the specific or sole model for Henri’s Modiste of Madrid, the way he portrayed the direct, yet aloof, expression of his subject is similar, and it seems likely that if Henri had met the Marquesa, he would have considered her also to be one of “his people.”
Essay by Donald Myers, Hillstrom Museum of Art, Gustavus Adolphus College