Robert Henri (1865-1929) was born Robert Henry Cozad at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865. The son of a professional gambler, Robert was eighteen when his father shot dead another man in a gambling argument in the Nebraska frontier town of Cozad, which his father had founded (and named). Though the killing was accepted by the authorities as self-defence, the Cozad family fled east in fear of reprisals from the dead man's family. A number of the Cozad children also changed their names, including the aspiring artist Robert who adopted the French version of his middle name, Henri, as his new surname.
Robert Henri studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before departing for Paris in 1888, where he enrolled at the Academie Julien. This was the same studio that Paul Henry, the Irish artist who was also to work on Achill Island, enrolled in when he arrived in Paris ten years later in 1898. Paris during the 1890s and early 1900s was the epicentre of the arts world and was host to a number of Irish writers including W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and the as yet unpublished J.M. Synge. In art, Paris was consolidating its position as home of the first 'modern art' movement, Impressionism. Important elements of the Impressionist style were quick brushstrokes to evoke the immediacy of the moment represented, and the selection as subject matter of everyday people in their daily work and play. In line with this ethos, Robert Henri visited Brittany in the summer of 1889, staying in the town of Concarneau. Henri obviously enjoyed the rural Breton culture, which is closely linked with traditional Gaelic culture, as he was later to return to Concarneau to paint several important landscapes. It was at this time that he started to use a palette knife to apply paint to the canvas, a technique that would become typical of 'post-Impressionist' painters such as Cezanne and van Gogh. Henri's work progressed quickly in France, and in 1891 he was admitted to the more prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Henri alternated between Paris and the U.S. during the 1890s, teaching at the Women's School of Design in Philadelphia and in his own school in Paris. After marrying one of his American students, Linda Craige, Robert Henri returned to Paris in 1898 following a year-long stint in Philadelphia. He considered running his own school there again but was concerned about the competition for students from the increasing number of similar schools in Paris, and in particular the news that another American artist, James McNeill Whistler, was to open one. As Henri wrote in a letter to his parents in July 1898 about Whister's plans: "it would be just that sort that choose me as a teacher who would be among the first to hurry to him." Co-incidentally one of those who did enrol at Whistler's newly established school was Paul Henry. It is interesting to speculate whether Paul Henry was present in Whistler's school in Paris when it was visited by Robert Henri in the autumn of 1898. Henri was not impressed by his visit, finding the school to be run by a former model of Whistler, Madame Rossi.