Originally from Normandy, Anquetin moved to Paris in 1882 and joined the studio of the painter Léon Bonnat (1833-1922), where he immediately became a close friend of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, accompanying him to the cabarets in Montmartre. After Bonnat closed his studio, they moved, in 1883, to the studio of Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), another Academic artist whose studio became a crucible of artistic activity where young talented artists like Emile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh came to study.
Anquetin probably met Henri Samary (1865-1902) through Lautrec, who had painted a portrait of the actor on the stage of the Comédie-Française in 1889 (Musée d'Orsay).
Henri Samary belonged to a veritable dynasty of actors: he was the grandson of Suzanne Brohan (1807-1887) and the nephew of Madeleine Brohan (1833-1900), both members of the Comédie-Française, and of Louis-Jacques Samary (1815-1893), a cellist at the Opéra.
His two sisters, Marie (1848-1941) and Jeanne (1857-1890), were also well known in the theatre, especially Jeanne who had found success and recognition at the Comédie-Française. Jeanne was immortalised in several portraits by Renoir. Henri too went to train at the Comédie Française in 1883.
While there, he performed in plays by Molière, and also acted in works by contemporary writers such as Feuillet, Sardou and Richepin.
Somewhere between a pure portrait and an expressive figure, this painting is an arrangement of flat shapes, without volume and without shadows. In 1889, the critic Félix Fénéon noted Anquetin's "intense, flat colours [and] impassable contours".
This full-face portrait, bringing out the rather recherché elegance of the sitter, has the strangeness of an enlarged fashion plate. The eloquence of Henri Samary's face, pierced by extraordinary blue eyes like those of his aunt Madeleine painted by Paul Baudry (Musée d'Orsay), makes this the stereotypical image of the actor.