Robert Henri’s “Portrait of Willie Gee” is a striking oil on canvas painting created in 1904. The subject of the portrait is an African-American boy, who is the son of a former slave who recently migrated to the North. Henri was known for depicting children in his portraits with vibrant and warm tones, and this work is no exception. Willie Gee, calmly and confidently holding an apple – often seen as a symbol of democracy, emanates an air of reflection beyond his years.
The artwork’s composition and brushwork are essential components of the painting. Henri’s robust and free brushwork showcases his skillful exploration of the medium – the high contrast light and dark values on the boy’s face and surrounding area supporting character depth. The portrait’s charming composition and the symbolism of the apple add meaning to a relatively simple scene. The painting measures 31 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches and is currently owned by the Newark Museum, gifted anonymously in 1925.
Overall, Henri’s “Portrait of Willie Gee” remains an excellent example of American realism’s Ashcan School. The strong tones and deep contrast work well at creating a sample of both symbolism and skill – Willie Gee juxtaposed by the apple, symbolizing the early ideals of America. The portrait’s historical significance may be tied to the era of US urbanization and a celebration of the rightful integration of African-American culture in the US.