Friday, June 12, 2009

One in a Million

Robert Henri, Jesseca Penn in Black Dress with White Plumes, 1908
[on view at SAM]

I've been volunteering at the Seattle Art Museum since this past winter – twice a month at the Information Desk and every other week up in the galleries, fielding questions that range from "where are the bathrooms?" to "what's a chromogenic print?" My shift in the galleries falls on a day and time that is often pretty slow, which isn't good for feeling extremely useful but is great for wandering around and enjoying the art, and SAM is constantly making enough little changes to what's hanging in the permanent collection spaces to keep things interesting.

One of my favorite paintings up right now is pictured above: Jesseca Penn in Black Dress with White Plumes, by American artist Robert Henri (1865-1929). Penn was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies and was a favorite model of Henri's; Christie's presided over the sale of this work in the spring of 2005 for $3.6 million, an auction record for the artist.

I have a weakness for large-scale painting and this is a big one, almost life-size. I love the color palette: the beautiful light blue and creamy white against the dark background, and the shock of red hair. The dress, which actually appears more navy than black in person, reminds me of something that Olivier Theyskens could have sent down the runway at Rochas a few years ago. And Penn's expression – with her heavy-lidded eyes and the tilt of her chin – seems fearless, both introspective and direct. Click to enlarge the image above to get a closer look at the details (though this is also one well worth seeing in the flesh).

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