Theodore Robinson. Part 2 – Naturalism, Realism and Giverny

Theodore Robinson

……………………Theodore Robinson returned with some of his fellow students to the Fontainebleu Forest in the summer of 1878 to carry on with their en plein air painting but probably the highlight for Robinson that September was his trip to Italy with his fellow École des Beaux-Arts student Kenyon Cox.  They visited Turin, Milan, Verona and Bologna on their way to Venice.  In his 1986 book, An American Art Student in Paris, The Letters of Kenyon Cox 1877-1882, H.Wayne Morgan quotes from a letter Cox sent to his family after he had returned to France on December 15th 1878 and from it we have an insight into the physical health of his erstwhile fellow traveller, Robinson.  Cox wrote:

“…Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up.  He caught some sort of fever there and was sick for some days in a little German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…….and almost afraid he should get out alive.   He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come around…”

Suzette (Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Robinson left Europe and returned to New York in late 1879 and rented a studio on Broadway hoping to establish himself as a professional artist but his financial situation became dire and he had to close his studio and return to his family in Evansville where he would paint local scenes but also dabbled with illustrative work.  One such illustration, Suzette, appeared in the August 31st 1880 issue of the Harper’s Young People magazine  in conjunction with a children’s story Viola’s Sketch.   The original black chalk drawing with white heightening, on grayish blue paper, mounted on board can be found at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.   It depicts an outdoor scene with a young girl, turned to the right, in a humble frock intent on sewing.  Her hair is styled in a long braid and she stands in wooden shoes, looking downward wistfully at her work.  The simple depiction of this guileless peasant girl probably harks back at Robinson’s academic training in Paris and the rustic genre imagery we have seen in the works of Jean-François Millet

However, Robinson’s life was at a low point, both physically and mentally as indicated in letters he sent to his friends.  One such friend was Will Low a fellow student at Carolus-Duran’s atelier in Paris.  In his 1908 book, A Chronicle of Friendship, Low wrote that on hearing of his friend’s predicament he had to:

“…extricate Robinson from the surroundings where….he was fast relapsing into a vegetable state…”

And so, Low arranged for Robinson to take a teaching position in New York at Mrs Sylvanus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, a latter day finishing school for young women.  In May 1881 Robinson was elected to the Society of American Artists and following the short spell of teaching he began to work for the muralist and stained-glass window maker John La Farge.  He and his friend Will Lowe worked on a La Farge commission from Cornelius Vanderbilt to decorate his New York 5th Avenue home and following this they worked on Vanderbilt’s Tarrytown residence on the Hudson River.  Robinson then went on to work for the decorative painting company run by Prentice Treadwell and he works on architectural decorations in Boston, Albany and on decorations for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as well as commissions for the well-heeled nouveau-riche industrialists.

Daisy Field, Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

In May 1881 Robinson’s mother died and he returned briefly to Evansville to be with his family but returned to New York that August.   During these periods of employment Robinson still carried on with his own paintings and spent time in the summer travelling around New York State, Vermont and made painting trips to Nantucket with fellow artists in the summer of 1882 painting local island life.

Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

Theodore Robinson spent the summer of 1882 on Nantucket Island and produced several paintings based on local scenes, including the one above.  The depiction of the rider and his mount at rest under the tree is a depiction of tranquillity and serenity.  In the distance, on the horizon, we can just make out the sea which lends itself to the belief that the setting was somewhere on the New England coast, probably Nantucket Island.  The painting can now be found at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Flower of Memory by Theodore Robinson (1881)

He completed a beautiful work in 1881 entitled Flower of Memory which is a romantic (if somewhat schmaltzy) depiction of a young lady in an Empire dress, standing alone in a garden.  This sort of depiction was very popular with folk in America at this time and could well have epitomised the figures he was painting as a decorative artist for the La Farge and Treadwell commissions.

A Poacher by Theodore Robinson (1884)

However, Robinson’s art was not dominated by cloying sentimentality in his depictions as he was very much a believer in the realism portrayed in works such as those by Winslow Homer on of his favourite painters.  This is borne out when we look at his 1984 work, The Poacher.

French Impressionism had permeated towards America and Impressionist paintings had started to become sought-after items.  The influential Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had organised a large exhibition of works of Manet, Monet, Pissaro  and Renoir in Boston in September 1883.  So just as Impressionism was arriving on the American shores in the Spring of 1884, Theodore Robinson, who had saved enough money to buy himself a sea passage, left the country to return to France where he would remain for the next eight years with just the occasional visits back to New York.  During his stay in France he would also make trips Belgium and Holland where he would take in the Flemish and Dutch art scene.

By the end of the 1870’s the leading exponent of the style of art known as Naturalism, which is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.  When Robinson arrived in France in 1884 the popularity and standing of Lepage was escalating, and his works of art were in great demand, a fact that Robinson must have been well aware of and there is no doubt that Lepage’s works influenced Robinson.   Lepage’s popularity and the sale of his artwork increased even more in December 1884 when he tragically died of stomach cancer at the young age of forty-four and this adulation culminated in 1885 with a retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris which proved to be a runaway success.

Le petit Colporteur endormi (The little sleeping pedlar) by Bastien-LePage

Often Lepage’s works depicted rural peasants and urban labourers  and these detailed portrayals lacked sentimentality and yet brought home to the observer an honest if somewhat blunt snapshot of the life of the less well-off. Such was their popularity they appeared regularly at the Salon  exhibitions.

In 1886 Robinson’s good friend Will Low along with his wife arrived in Paris and Robinson was there to greet them as they alighted from the train at Gare St. Lazaire.  Such was his friendship with Low that for the next twelve months he lived with them at their rented accommodation on Rue Vernier in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Robinson’s work during his time in France was diverse.  There was the sentimentality of works like Flower of Memory which as I said earlier probably originated from his time of painting mural decorations for La Farge and Treadwell.  There was his landscape work which derived from his en plein air painting at the Fontainebleau Forest during his summer breaks from the Paris Academy and finally there was his interest in genre painting and the depiction of peasants and urban dwellers at work or at home which he became interested in during his trips to Flanders and the Netherlands.

A Cobbler of Old Paris by Theodore Robinson (1885)

His 1885 painting A Cobbler in Old Paris is a prime example of Robinson’s look at urban life.  The focal point for the work is the woman who leans in through the open window to talk to the cobbler.  One should almost look at this work as a part still life painting with the cobblers workbench littered with still life objects, the tools of his trade, as is the wall in the background filled with the racks of shoes.  This type of scene of tranquil everyday life was popular in Victorian times and Robinson completed many similar works.

Young Girl with Dog by Theodore Robinson (1886)

In his 1886 painting, Young Girl with Dog, Robinson has preserved Bastien-Lepage’s method of honestly and frankly portraying an un-idealized figure seen in a landscape.   There is also an American source of inspiration that would have been well-known to Robinson. This small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is evocative of a series of watercolours produced by Winslow Homer in the summer of 1878 when he was invited to stay at Houghton Farm in upstate New York, the home of his patron Lawson Valentine.

Weary by Winslow Homer (1878)

One such work by Homer was entitled Weary.  Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer’s watercolours, but it is rumoured that he purchased one of the watercolours in 1894.  Robinson first visited Giverny, a small Norman village, which was situated on the banks of the River Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen in 1885 when he and a friend of Claude Monet, Monsieur De Conchy visited the French painter. Claude Monet had moved there in 1883 with his two young sons Jean and Michel.   Pierre Toulgouat who was a descendent of Monet, wrote of the time in his 1948 book, Skylights in Normandy:

“…in 1885, his [Monet’s] friend, De Conchy came to visit him, accompanied by the young American painter, Theodore Robinson – and Robinson, particularly, was to remain a faithful Givernois, until his death, painting there when he could and writing longingly of it when he had to be away…”

In June of 1886 Robinson was in Paris and managed to visit Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away captivated by Monet’s works especially their colour and luminosity

Portrait of Madame Baudy by Theodore Robinson (1888)

In June 1887 Robinson moved out of Paris and went to live in Giverny. He moved into rooms at the newly-opened Hotel Baudy, which lay in the centre of the village and was run by Angélina Baudy.  Giverny and the surrounding area, for Theodore Robinson, was all about the simplicity of the landscape, the colours and the light and he would love to go off and explore and paint.  He loved everything about the area.  He loved the hills and fields, the old buildings, the people and the animals and would immerse himself in the area painting as much as he could in the ever changing conditions of light and weather.

Valley of the Seine, Giverny by Theodore Robinson (1887)

A fine example of this is his 1887 painting Valley of the Seine in which we see a minute figure in white which somehow secures a pattern of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and depict several hillside swaths of yellow and grey, and a triangle of blue sky. For his portrayal of the countryside Robinson has used muted earthen colours, ones that he would use in many of his later paintings.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

During his stay around the Giverny area Robinson depicted many of the residents of the area.  Most of his paintings featured women at work, sometimes seen gathering wood and fruit sometimes tending the farm animals or doing the laundry.  An example of this is his large 1888 painting entitled La Vachère (The Cowherd) 219 x 152cms (86 x 60 ins) which is housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Before us we see a young woman and a cow both surrounded by foliage that glistens in the reflected light.  Look how Robinson has cleverly left an opening between the trees in way of the girl’s head.  It enhances the young woman’s profile and frames her face as well as adding depth to the depiction.  The addition of the cow into the depiction is almost as if the animal is vying for supremacy in the painting but it is completely ignored by the girl.

In The Grove by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

One strange thing about this painting is that shortly after he completed the work Robinson painted the same woman in the same setting but without the cow!  Maybe he thought the animal detracted from the beauty of the female. The picture, which is much smaller, is entitled In the Grove and is also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection.

In my final look at Theodore Robinson’s life in the next blog, I will look closer at his relationship with Claude Monet and showcase more of his later works.

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Sir George Clausen. Part 1. Rustic Naturalism and the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage

Sir George Clausen       (Self Portrait)
Sir George Clausen
(Self Portrait)

There is something very intriguing about “–isms” when talking about genres in art.  We are all aware of them common ones such as realism, impressionism, cubism, etc.  In fact I have an art history book about “-isms”.  Today I want to introduce you to another “-ism” which is not mentioned in the knowledgeable tome.  It is ruralism, often referred to as Rural Naturalism, an art genre through which artists pictorially champion life away from the grime of cities and, through their paintings, exalts life in the countryside.   One of the great exponents of ruralism is the subject of my next two blogs, the English painter, Sir George Clausen.

George Clausen was born 8 William Street, Regents Park, London in April 1852, the son of Jorgen Johnsen and Elizabeth Clausen.  His father, an artist and interior decorator, was of Danish extraction and his mother was of Scottish descent.  Up until the age of fourteen and a half, George attended St Mark’s School in Kings Road Chelsea.  In 1867, three months before his fifteenth birthday he started a five year apprenticeship in the Chelsea drawing office of Messrs. Trollope, a firm of interior decorators.  During this period he was trained in drawing by John Cleghorn, whose job title was a copyist and limner, an old term for a painter of ornamental decoration, a book illustrator or somebody who illuminates manuscripts.  Cleghorn had an artistic background having studied at The Royal Academy Schools.  George Clausen had a thirst for artistic knowledge and to supplement Cleghorn’s tuition, also attended evening classes at the National Art Training School, South Kensington, which in 1896, would become the Royal College of Art.  One of the jobs Clausen was involved in was to decorate the home of the English genre, history, biblical and portrait painter, Edwin Long.  Clausen’s boss, an Irish man called Brophy, gave Clausen the task to paint some lilies on the panels of a door in Edwin Long’s house.  Clausen remembered this time and it must have made an impression on him, for sixty years later in his Autobiographical Notes which appeared in the Spring 1931 edition of the Artwork magazine he recalled the time:

“…Long looked at my work and said ‘May I see your sketchbook?’   He gave it back to me and said ‘Did you ever think of becoming an artist?’  I said ‘Yes, but I saw no opportunity of getting the training.’  Long said ‘I think you’d have a chance. And if I were you I’d try for a scholarship at South Kensington.’  Brophy readily agreed.  I had already taken medals in design, and I was worked up in my spare time, and obtained a two years’ scholarship in decorative painting at £50 a year!…”

Clausen was not enamoured by the training he received during the two year course at South Kensington School of Art.  He believed that there was not enough teaching and lacked structure as students were left to get on with things themselves.

The Baylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (1875)
The Baylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (1875)

He did however keep in contact with Edwin Long and did a lot of research work for him with regards some of Long’s large biblical paintings.  Long would pay Clausen for his help and also tutored him.  Long realised that Clausen’s artistic ability needed to be carefully nurtured and believed, for Clausen to receive the best artistic tuition, he needed to leave England and move to Antwerp and attend the Antwerp Academy of Art.

George Clausen accepted the advice and travelled to Holland and Belgium and for a short period enrolled at the Antwerp Academy where he studied under the tutelage of Professor Joseph van Lerius.  His sketches and paintings around this time were heavily influenced by Dutch subjects such as the coastal fishing villages and he exhibited a number of these at the Dudley Gallery, which was originally located in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London.   It  was completed in 1812 and financed by Earl of Dudley to house his valuable collection of pictures during the erection of his own gallery at Dudley House in Park Lane. It was known for its promotion of French and Dutch artists.

High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland by George Clausen (
High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland by George Clausen (1876)

One example of Clausen’s “Dutch period” was his small (47 x 84 cms) oil on canvas painting entitled High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuider Zee, which he completed in 1876 and is part of the Nottingham Castle Museum collection.  The work was the result of a summer holiday Clausen had taken to the island of Marken, in the Zuider Zee, with his friend and fellow artist Dewey Bates.  They had visited the village of Volendam on a Sunday, where there was a celebration of a High Mass.  The mass was so well attended that the church was full and many parishioners were left outside.  In the painting we see into the fully occupied church as well as a group of fishermen with their wives and children kneeling on the cobbled street outside the main entrance door.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the first work he had ever submitted to the prestigious establishment, and the art critic of The Times, seeing the work of art and Clausen’s name immediately believed he was a Dutch artist painting a scene from his homeland and wrote :

“…a very clever Dutch painter, hitherto only known in this country by two drawings exhibited at the Dudley Gallery…”

The art critic of the Spectator was full of praise writing:

“…a quiet thoughtful picture, in every sense of the word. A work of true art and deep feeling…”

Whilst in Europe George Clausen made many visits to Paris.  His paintings around this time showed that he had been influenced by the likes of Whistler and William Quiller Orchardson, a well loved Scottish portraitist and painter of domestic and historical subjects.  He was also very interested in the rustic natural depictions of the Scottish artist John Robertson Reid and Léon Augustine Lhermitte, a French realist painter, whose primary subject matter was of rural scenes depicting the peasant worker.

La Pensée by George Clausen (1880)
La Pensée by George Clausen (1880)

In 1880 Clausen exhibited his work La Pensée at the Grosvenor Gallery in London.  It was a difficult depiction for an artist with the model seated in an interior.  The figure is not seated parallel to the plane of the picture and the rear wall.  It is a work of art full of detail.  Look at the right background and you can see the edge of an elaborate chimney piece.  In the left background there is a drop leaf table and on the floor a goat skin rug.  The lady sits upright in the chair looking out at us whilst grasping a knot of violets in her right hand which rests in her lap.  This is the key to the title of the painting (Thought).  Here is a lady lost in thought about her lost love.

Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill by George Clausen (1881)
Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill by George Clausen (1881)

Clausen often used this model for his paintings and one I particularly like featuring her was completed in 1881 and entitled a Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill.  It was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition.  This London street scene was an ambitious work featuring not just the main female model, who walks along the street accompanied by a small child, but a number of other characters some at rest, some at work, including labourers digging up the cobbles in the road and, directly behind the main character, a flower seller.

Les Foins by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1877)
Les Foins by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1877)

When Clausen exhibited La Pensée at the Grosvenor Gallery amongst his fellow exhibitors was Jules Bastien-Lepage who was exhibiting nine paintings, including Les Foins (Haymaking), which depicts resting haymakers.  This painting had been exhibited at the Salon in 1878.  Clausen, like the critics, were enthralled by this work of rural or rustic naturalism.  Clausen shortly after moved to the countryside and went to live in the Hertfordshire village of Childwick Green.  He later wrote in his 1931 Autobiographical Notes about his new surroundings and the new opportunity and challenges it gave him as a painter

“…One saw people doing simple things under good conditions of lighting: and there was always a landscape.  And nothing was made easy for you: you had to dig out what you wanted…”

The Gleaners by George Clausen (1882)
The Gleaners by George Clausen (1882)

Soon his sketchbooks were full of sketches and paintings depicting workers in the countryside surrounding his house.  One of Clausen’s first works depicting labourers in the fields was completed in 1882 and was entitled The Gleaners.  The work was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1882.  It was greeted with great acclaim by the critics and art reviewers.  In Vol. V 1881-2 of The Magazine of Art, the reviewer wrote about how Clausen sympathetically depicted the labourers:

“…He shows us a little company of the poor not in picturesque rags but in garments of fact, gleaning modern English fields…”

Pauvre Fauvette by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1881)
Pauvre Fauvette by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1881)

In 1881 Bastien-Lepage completed a work entitled Pauvre Fauvette.  He often painted the peasants from the town he was living in at the time, Damvillers which is situated in north-eastern France. In his painting we see a very small young girl, the ‘little wild girl’ of the painting’s title.  Her job is to patiently and quietly guard a cow, which we see on the other side of the tree.  In a way it is a depiction of isolation in the way the artist has depicted the small child, even dwarfed by the tall thistles.  She stands alone next to a leaf-less tree surrounded by  a very barren landscape.  It is a pitiful depiction and we note her haunted and sad eyes and the way she tries to cover herself up and keep herself warm in a threadbare blanket leads us to believe it could have been a cold winter’s day.

The Stone Pickers by George Clausen (1887)
The Stone Pickers by George Clausen (1887)

The next work I am featuring was also probably influenced by Bastien-Lepage’s work above.  It was one which Clausen began in the autumn of 1886 and completed in 1887.  It was entitled The Stone Pickers.  On completion Clausen sent it to Goupil, the art dealer and in 1887 it was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, London and also appeared at the second New English Art Club exhibition of 1887.  It is now housed at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.  The model for the painting was Polly Baldwin and the setting was at Cookham Dene.  Look how in this work the girl has sacking wrapped around her lower body to keep her warm, similar to the attire of the child in Bastien-Lepage’s painting.  Stone pickers were sent out into the fields to pick up loose stones prior to ploughing.  In Clausen’s painting we see a young girl depositing stones, which she had picked up, on to a pile.  In the background we see another woman bent down picking up stones from the field. One can only imagine what a backbreaking and tedious job the women had to endure.  Many artists of the time liked to depict hard working labourers/peasants at work in the fields,  This was the essence of rustic realism or rustic naturalism.  Look at the expression on the young girl’s face as she looks down at the pile of stones.  It is a sad and almost haunted expression.  Behind her there is a can containing water and a wicker basket containing food for her lunch.  Our eyes are drawn to this area because of the red colour of what could be a table cloth.

In my next blog I will complete Clausen’s life story and have a look at some more of his works of art.