Sarah Lavelle had tears in her eyes when she finally caught a glimpse of the painting of her grandmother.
Never having seen the original, just prints of the artwork, the vivid colors and major resemblance of her late grandmother gave her tears of joy.
“It’s beautiful,” she managed to say.
Lavelle traveled from England to Cleveland this month for a family wedding. The Huntington Museum of Art invited her to visit the museum and see the painting, titled “Kathleen,” by Robert Henri, while she was in the states.
“Every house in the family has [a print of the painting],” she said. “I lived in Australia and did my master’s there, and she was up on the wall and on the fridge.”
Lavelle and her family are from Keel, Achill Island, in Ireland. Her grandmother, Kathleen Gallagher Lavelle, was painted by Henri in 1924 as he visited their village in Achill.
The oil painting is a portrait of Kathleen Gallagher Lavelle as a young girl, about 11 years old. In the painting, she is blonde with a green ribbon in her hair. She wears a blue dress with an orange scarf. The dark background is a common characterization of Henri’s artwork.
“She remembered that she had to sit very, very still and could not move,” Sarah Lavelle said.
Henri is said to have had a fascination with children, calling them ideal subjects because of their wisdom and kindness expressed with ease.
Sarah Lavelle said since the majority of Kathleen Gallagher Lavelle’s friends and cousins also sat for Henri, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for her to do it. He visited Achill Island many times, and each year during the summers of 1924 to 1928.
“She was very blase about it,” Sarah Lavelle said. “But that was because the whole of her peer group did it. She comes from one particular village, and if you walked through the village now, you could pick out Henri children from the grandchildren and the great grandchildren and still see the genetic resemblance.”
Kathleen Gallagher Lavelle’s sister, Mary Gallagher, also was painted by Henri during the same visit. That painting resides in the Newark Museum in New Jersey.
“They were paid to sit for Henri, who came to Achill, which was very poor. Henri sold them off, and I think the painting was sold to America in 1925,” Sarah Lavelle said.
Kathleen Gallagher Lavelle, who died in 2013 at 99 years old, only ever saw reproductions of the painting.
“The colors aren’t as vivid as seeing the painting,” Sarah Lavelle said. “It’s very overwhelming. It’s so sharp, and bigger. It’s very strange to see something that someone looked at and got to do for Granny over 100 years ago. It’s hard to put into words.”
Sarah Lavelle said she had a close relationship with her grandmother.
“We grew up maybe four or five houses away from her, so her house was an extension of ours, and we were always running in and out,” she said. “She was very wise. She was the one we all wanted to be with, always.”
Sarah Lavelle recalled some of the memories her grandmother had shared with her about the day she was painted.
“She remembered being in what they referred to as a big house and sitting in the drawing room and having to sit very still,” Sarah Lavelle said. “Henri’s wife dressed her and put a ribbon around her hair and a scarf around her neck. They would sit for a while, and then have lunch and then sit again. She would have been around 11 at the time, so probably not too fidgety.”
Bryan Burvis, Sarah Lavelle’s cousin, visited the museum with her. When they saw the museum sign, knowing they were getting closer, Burvis said Sarah Lavelle started to tear up.
“This was on her bucket list,” he said. “She was very close to her grandmother.”
The painting is part of the Huntington Museum of Art’s Daywood Collection. The collection was gifted to the museum in 1966 by Ruth Woods Dayton and Arthur Dayton, of Charleston. The painting is one of more than 15,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection. The portrait will be on public display in August.
Reach Anna Taylor at email@example.com, 304-348-4881 or follow @byannataylor on Twitter.