Theodore Robinson. Part 3 – Monet, Giverny and Robinson’s muse, Marie.

At the Piano by Theodore Robinson (1887)

Whilst Robinson often depicted women at work, other paintings of his  portrayed women at rest, sometimes relaxing at the piano as was depicted in his 1887 painting At the Piano.  The painting was completed whilst he was staying at the home of John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, a wealthy American writer and activist, and an acquaintance of Robinson who was related to the elite Astor, Livingston, and Stuyvesant families. Chanler was a great supporter of American artists who had come to Paris to follow their artistic dream and it is thought that on occasions had provided financial support to Robinson.

Look at the different textures depicted such as the glistening surface of the piano top and the glowing fabric of the woman’s dress.  We can almost hear the sound of the music as we see the fingers of the lady caress the ivory keys.

The painting was very popular and Robinson believed he knew why.  In his diary entry for September 10th, 1893 he wrote:

“…It is probably the sincerity with which it was done – I remember it seemed to me a sad failure at the time, and at Archie’s rue Dumont d’Urville just before leaving for the country…”

At the Piano by Whistler (1859)

Many believe the inspiration for this work was a painting Robinson may have come across when he was in Philadelphia in 1881 or New York in 1882 when At the Piano by James Abbott McNeil Whistler was being exhibited. Albeit that work, which is a study of Whistler’s half-sister and niece, is much darker in comparison to Robinsons painting which is aglow with delicate light.

Lady in Red by Theodore Robinson (1885)

The model for Robinson’s painting was thought to be Marie a love interest of his during his time in Paris and Giverny although they never married.  Robinson first met Marie at the start of his second visit to France in the Spring of 1884.  She was an artist’s model who lived in Paris.    He first portrayed Marie in a watercolour in 1885 entitled Lady in Red in which she is depicted in profile against a dappled background of leaves and fragile branches.

The Red Gown (also known as His Favorite Model) by Theodore Robinson (1885)

Although that was just a head and shoulder depiction we see she is wearing a red costume which was often seen in other Robinson portraits, such as his painting entitled The Red Gown, and the dress is thought to be one of Robinson’s studio props.

Val d’Arconville by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

Another of Theodore Robinson’s works featuring Marie was his beautiful 1888 work entitled Val D’Arconville, which can be seen at the Chicago Institute for Art.  In this depiction, we see Marie sitting on a flower-filled hillside overlooking the Arconville Valley which is situated southeast of Paris.  In the painting, Robinson used densely layered, broken brushwork, which was a technique he picked up from Monet.  This clever artistic method has the observer of the work relinquish their focus on the woman and their eye is led down the slope, and across the valley.  This was not simply an impressionistic painting which captured momentary effects such as the grass moving in the breeze, it becomes more of a structural work with the inclusion of the houses in the middle ground.

The painting was originally owned by Arthur Astor Carey, a cousin of John Armstrong Chanler, who had taken up residency at Giverny during the summer 1887.  The identity of Marie as the sitter for the painting was confirmed by an entry in Robinson’s diary for June 11th1893 in which he stated:

“…Mrs B. told me of the inspiration she got from a picture of mine (Carey’s, with Marie on the hill-side)…”

Little is known of Marie but in Sona Johnston book In Monet’s Light she quotes from a letter of a fellow American tourist and lodger at Hôtel Baudy who wrote home:

“…By the way, dear, it looks very strange but Mr. Robinson has a model down here who has a little daughter . . . Everyone says that . . . the little girl is the daughter of Mr. Robinson [and] the child looks very like him.”

Robinson had fell heavily for his muse and in a letter to his sister-in-law, Mary, on May 20th, 1887, he wrote:

“…I am in love with a French Girl, it is an affair of some time – and I came close to writing of it to Father but did not.  It is quiet just now and nothing may come of it so you had better say nothing about it – She has the same name as you in French – Marie – but she is as dark as you are fair…”

Nobody ever knew the surname of Robinson’s love as he never wrote it down in any of his letters or in his diary.  Despite his deep love for the young women, nothing came of the relationship.  The couple never married and we will never know why.  Maybe it was because of his failing health or maybe it was because of his poor financial state.  We do know that the relationship was not as Robinson would have liked as he discussed his disappointment with the state of his love life on many occasions over the dinner table with Will Low and his wife.   His relationship with Marie lasted for six years until he finally left France but he continued to correspond with Marie up until his death.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Giverny became a popular spot for artists around mid-1880’s.  It is known that John Singer Sargent visited the village around 1885 and met with Monet and it was the latter’s love of en plein air painting that appealed to Sargent.  It was in that year that Sargent produced his painting entitled Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Wood which depicts the great man at work watched over by his future second wife, Alice Hoschedé.

In 1880s and 1890s, American aspiring artists poured into Paris looking for places at its art schools and a chance to work in the ateliers of famous French painters. To them Paris was the Mecca of art and to study at one of the academies or ateliers was a “must have” experience and at the same time it was a sought-after freedom from the rigidity of artistic training at American academies.  For them to study at one of the famed Parisian academies and then to head for the countryside or the coast during the summer months was, for them, their idea of Shangri-La.

In the summer of 1887 a small group of young American artists made their home in Giverny.  How this came about was documented in a book written by the English Impressionist painter, Dawson Dawson-Watson entitled The Real Story of Giverny, based on a conversation he had had with the American artist, John Leslie Breck in 1888.  Breck recounted:

“…In the spring of ’87 [he and] Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Blair-Bruce, Theo Wendel, and a chap named Taylor whose Christian name I cannot recall, were talking over some place to go for the summer.  All of the usual places, Pont Aven, Etretat, Ecoigu, and Grèz, were rejected because their interest was in finding a new location to paint. After consulting the destination board at the Gare St. Lazare, they agreed that Pont del’Arche was appealing, so they decided to visit the town and see if it was as picturesque as its name.

The train to Pont del’Arche followed the Seine into Normandy and required a change at Vernon. As they approached Vernon, Metcalf pointed out a little village of white houses and a Norman church at the base of the hill on the opposite bank of the river and commented on its loveliness. At Vernon, they were told the village was Giverny. Once aboard the new train they were treated to a second view of Giverny when they crossed the Seine and were doubling back. The painters agreed unanimously that if Pont del’Arche was not to their liking they would return to Giverny the following morning, which was exactly what they did…”

After the initial discovery, other American artists soon followed and many began to extend their visits beyond the summer months.

Robinson’s photograph of the Monet-Hoschedé family gathering at Giverny (c.1892)

In April 1883, forty-two-year-old Claude Monet left his home in the western Paris suburb of Poissy and went to live in the small Normandy farming village of Giverny, a village he had passed thorough many times during his train journeys from Paris to Rouen.  The unpretentious village nestled at the bottom of a hill across the River Seine from the town of Vernon.  It was then made up of simple farms, modest houses, and a Norman church and at the time had a population of less than three hundred residents.  What appealed to Monet about Giverny and the surrounding area was its pastoral charm.  Monet, at this time, had been widowed for four years.  He arrived at Giverny and set up home along with his two children, Jean and Michel, and his former patrons Ernest and Alice Hoschedé.  Ernest Hoschedé, a departments store magnate and art collector had been declared bankrupt in 1877 when his business failed.  With nowhere to live, he and his wife and six children went to live with Claude and Camille Monet and their two children.

Charcoal sketch of Claude Monet by Theodore Robinson (1890)

At the time of Monet’s arrival at Giverny, his artistic career was starting to take off.  Giverny was to be a secluded and peaceful retreat and so he was less than pleased by the summer influx of artists to Giverny.  In his 1993 book Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionists Colony. William Gerdts recalls what Monet told a reporter about the influx of Americans:

“…When I first came to Giverny I was quite alone, the little village was unspoiled. Now, so many artists, students, flock here, I have often thought of moving away…”

However, the great man did not move away. Instead he progressively removed himself to his compound where his garden and lily pond provided all the subject matter he needed for his paintings.

Theodore Robinson’s photograph of Monet (c.1889)

Theodore Robinson agreed with Monet about the downside of the influx of visitors and was set against the idea put forward by John Leslie Breck to establish Giverny as an artists’ colony, and he was quoted as saying:

“…Breck conceived the idea of making an art colony of it [Giverny]. Theo Robinson strenuously objected saying they had found a lovely spot and should keep it to themselves…”

Breck had replied that because everyone had been so damn nice, he wanted them to reap some real financial benefit and not withstanding Robinson’s objection, Breck had persuaded Monsieur Baudy, the owner of Café Baudy they frequented, to build six rooms in the courtyard in back of the building and so Hôtel Baudy came into existence.  He even persuaded the landlord to build a studio for Willard Metcalf.

Theodore Robinson may have objected to making Giverny a hub for artists to visit in the summer for other than selfish reasons, it could well have been due to his own social reserve.  Robinson was not an unfriendly person but was quite happy with his own company.  Robinson, at thirty-one years of age, was older than his friends who had come to Giverny with him and this may have been a factor as to why he had been befriended by Monet.  Robinson, being close to Monet, was probably aware of Monet’s dislike of the village being overrun by visiting artists.  Robinson and Monet’s friendship was an interesting one.  It was not based on Monet being the master and Robinson the pupil.  It was a friendship based on a shared common love – painting, and both appreciated the talent of the other.  It was a friendship that would last even after Robinson returned to America with many letters passing from one to the other.

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

Robinson returned briefly to New York at the end of 1887, but was back in Paris by early 1888 and had once again re-visited Giverny that summer. One of his paintings he completed during that summer is now considered to be one of his first Impressionist paintings.  It was La Vachére. It is interesting to note that this work highlights a dilemma for Robinson.  Is he an Impressionist painter or an Academic painter?  The painting would seem to be part Impressionism in the way the trees and foliage are depicted as patches of colour and part Academic in the way he depicts the woman.  She is simply a figurative study within an Impressionistic backdrop.  The painting was exhibited in the 1889 Paris Salon.

Autumn Sunlight by Theodore Robinson (1888)

A more impressionist style of painting can be seen in Theodore Robinson’s 1888 work entitled Autumn Sunlight.  In this painting, we see a young woman standing in the woods.  She is what is termed a faggot gatherer, a person who collects firewood, a bundle of which we see at her feet.   The background of speckled light hints at tonalism, which emphasizes atmosphere and shadow. However, the foreground with its myriad of leaves depicted by a montage of broken brushstrokes is pure Impressionism.

Winter Landscape by Theodore Robinson (1889)

Robinson returned to New York in December 1888.  He rented a studio in Manhattan.  His artistic output was less than it had been during his days in Giverny but produced works that he exhibited at the American Watercolor Society in the Spring of 1889.  Come the summer of 1889, Robinson was back in Giverny and it was during that year that he completed his beautiful work entitled Winter Landscape.  The work depicts ta view of the village of Giverny after it had succumbed to a freak snowstorm.  The red rooves of the houses were suddenly transformed to a patchwork of white and the entire village is swathed in a icy-looking purple-blue ambience.  Once again Robinson had returned to New York that winter and entered this painting at the Society of American Artists annual exhibition.  It won the Webb Prize, an award given for the best landscape in the exhibition, painted by an American artist under forty years of age.  He also received a monetary prize amounting the three hundred dollars.  Ironically this was one of the pure landscapes Robinson painted without a person or persons being part of the scene and the category for the prize stipulated that only “pure” landscape paintings would be accepted by the judges!

Capri and Mount Solaro by Theodore Robinson (1890)

Robinson was back in Giverny, once again a resident of Hôtel Baudy, for the summer of 1890 but the highlight of the year for him was his trip to Italy and the south of France.  During that winter journey Robinson visited Capri and from that stop-over produced the painting Capri and Mount Solero.  This landscape work was a depiction of the town and mountain as seen from a hillside which looks across from the town.  Again, in this work, we see the juxtaposition of his two styles.  We have the geometrical depiction of the village and the flat-roofed houses and yet we have the Impressionism style loose brushstrokes which are used to depict the foliage.

Capri by Theodore Robinson (1890)

For the first three months of 1891 Robinson was in Frascati, a town twenty kilometres south-east of Rome.  It was in March 1891 that Monet contacted Robinson, summoning home:

“…[Spring] is close … and I hope you are not going to delay taking possession again of your little house…….”

Robinson returned to Giverny in April 1891 after a brief stay in the French coastal town of Antibes.  Once again, having arrived back in Giverny, he took up residence at the Hôtel Baudy where he stayed until December, at which time he returns to New York.  The year 1891 was one of the most productive for Robinson and it was in that year that he once again began to dabble with photography.  He wrote to his family explaining why:

“…Painting directly from nature is difficult as things do not remain the same, the camera helps retain the picture in your mind…”

Two in a Boat Theodore Robinson (1891)

His use and dependency on photography varied but was mainly for use in his figurative work.  In some cases, it was found that he drew a grid of squares on the photograph and on the canvas or sheet of paper he was to draw on so that he could transfer a composition with great accuracy.  One painting he completed using this method to depict the two figures was Two in a Boat which he completed whilst in Giverny in the summer of 1891.  The depiction is of two women reading while lounging in a skiff floating on the Seine or Epte rivers. The method Robinson used to complete the work is given by the Phillips Collection in Washington which houses the painting:

“…The relationship between Two in a Boat and the photograph from which it derived offers a vivid example of Robinson’s painting process. He lightly scored the photograph and the canvas with graphite and sketched in the composition, using the grid as a measure. The grid and under-drawing are visible throughout, because Robinson’s pink primed canvas was left exposed in many areas, particularly in the lines defining the interior of the occupied boat and the figures. The painting differs slightly from the photograph: Robinson excluded a fourth boat to the starboard side of the skiff and the branch falling diagonally from the top left corner; furthermore, the photograph’s strong contrast has been replaced by an overall tone of violet and green…”

Robinson was pleased with the painting and exhibited it in the Society of American Artists’ 1895 annual exhibition and in his one-person exhibition at Macbeth’s later that year.

On May 13th, 1892, Robinson departed for what would prove to be his last summer in Giverny and the following month celebrated his fortieth birthday.  Celebrate was probably not the best way to describe this milestone in his life as he was suffering from a bout of severe depression and self-doubt.

La Debacle (also known as Marie at the Little Bridge) by Theodore Robinson (1892)

In 1892 Robinson completed one of his best known and best loved paintings.  It had the strange title of La Débâcle and later a subtitle of Marie at Little Bridge was added.  The sitter for this work was again his muse, Marie, Robinson’s great love and regular model.  In the painting, we see a fashionably dressed young woman seated on the stone foundation of the bridge over the River Epte, which runs close to Giverny.  Something or someone has disturbed her although we have no clue to what or who it is.  Clutched in her hand is the most recent novel written by Emile Zola entitled La Débâcle which had just come on sale that year.  The title of the book refers to the ignominious defeat of France in its battle with Prussia in 1870.  However, there may be another reason for the title of the painting as Robinson had proposed to Marie on a number of occasions and had been spurned and in a way that was Robinson’s own Débâcle.  It was also the year Robinson left Giverny and France for the last time but with him on his final journey back to America was this painting.

The Wedding March by Theodore Robinson (1892)

Also in 1892 Robinson produced what is probably his best-known work, The Wedding March.  The painting was based on the wedding of the American painter, Theodore Earl Butler to one of Monet’s stepdaughter, Susan Hoschedé.  In a letter to his friend he described the event:

“…There was a double ceremony – first at the Mairie – then at the church.  Nearly all the wedding party were in full dress……Most of the villagers and all the pensionnaires were there – guns were fired, two beggars held open the carriage doors and received alms…”

Although one may have thought that Robinson painted the work using a photograph of the processional march but in fact he painted it from memory. In the painting, we see the procession from the orange-sided Mairie, or City Hall, on its way to the old Norman church down the lane which has since been named the rue Claude Monet. In the depiction, we see Monet himself escorting the bride at foreground while Butler and Madame Hoschedé bring up the rear. The unidentified girl in the middle is thought to be the youngest Hoschedé daughter.

Gathering Plums by Theodore Robinson (1891)

Robinson arrived back in America on December 12th, 1892.  He had hoped to survive financially through the sale of his paintings but this was not to be and due to ever increasing financial difficulties Robinson was forced to teach a summer class for the Brooklyn Art School.  Robinson was a shy person who favoured his own company and so due to this and his lack of confidence, teaching was not a favourite occupation, but beggars cannot be choosers.

Père Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge (1891)

For the next three years, Theodore Robinson continued to paint and teach at various colleges but his health was beginning to fail.   During the winter of 1895, asthma was increasingly consuming more of Robinson’s strength. In his final letter to Monet in February 6th, 1896 he wrote to the great man saying that he hoped to return to Giverny but it was not to be. He finally succumbed to the respiratory ailment that he had been suffering from all his life and he died on April 2nd, 1896 at the New York home of his cousin, Agnes Cheney. Robinson’s funeral was held on 4 April at the Society of American Artists in New York, and his body was then sent to Evansville, Wisconsin for burial.  His death came just six weeks before what would have been his forty-fourth birthday.

Theodore Robinson has long been considered the first American Impressionist.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Theodore Robinson. Part 1 – the early years of the American Impressionist

Theodore Robinson

When we think of Impressionism and Impressionist painters we immediately think of French artists and if I was to ask you to name a few French Impressionist painters, I guess you wouldn’t have a problem and the names of Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bazille, Pissaro and Cézanne would easily roll off your tongue.  However, if I was to ask you to cite some famous American Impressionists I guess the names of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent would come immediately to mind, some may even suggest William Merritt Chase or John Henry Twachtman but, especially if you were not an American, it would become a struggle to think of the names of any other American Impressionist.  In my blog today I am looking at the life and work of one of the first American Impressionists, Theodore Robinson, albeit he is not the best known.  Lovell Birge Harrison, the American genre and landscape painter, teacher, and writer and prominent practitioner and advocate of Tonalism wrote about Robinson in a 1916 article in Century Magazine, saying:

“…The one who always stands out most vividly in my own mind …[is] Theodore Robinson, who is now taking his place beside Inness, Wyant, and Winslow Homer as one of our American old masters…”

Self Portrait by Theodore Robinson (c.1887)

Robinson was one of the most skilful and gifted American artists of the nineteenth century. He said he always knew he would become an artist and once said of himself that perhaps he was born to make sketches.  His accomplishments as an artist take on an even greater meaning considering that he was a man who would have to battle all his life against poor physical health.

Harbour Scene by Theodore Robinson (1876)

Theodore Pierson Robinson was born on July 3rd 1852 in the small northern Vermont town of Irasburg which lies twenty-five miles south of the US-Canada border.  He was the third of six children of Elijah and Ellen Brown Robinson.  Sadly, his two sisters and one of his brothers died in childhood, leaving just Theodore and his two brothers Hamline and John.  In 1843, his father, who had worked on the family farm in Jamaica, trained to become a minster in the Methodist congregation but due to ill health had to give up the ministry and he became a shopkeeper opening is own clothing store.

Young Woman Reading by Theodore Robinson (1887)

In 1855, whilst still a very young child, Theodore and his family moved from Vermont and went to live in the small town of Barry, Illinois and two years later they moved again, this time to Evansville, southern Wisconsin, another small town that was first settled in the 1830s by New Englanders who were attracted to the area by its unspoiled wooded landscapes.  Another reason for the move to the countryside of Wisconsin was because of Theodore’s health.  As a young child, he had developed asthma which had weakened him and would trouble him for the rest of his life.  He enrolled at the local seminary where his artistic talent was first noted, winning  prizes for penmanship.   He would also often sketch portraits of friends and family as well as the parishioners who came to the local Methodist church.

In 1869, aged 17, after he had completed regular schooling, and because of his burgeoning artistic talent,  along with his mother’s dogged perseverance, he enrolled as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Unfortunately, he did not stay there long as his asthma worsened, a chronic condition that he had suffered with since childhood, and so it was decided that he should move away from polluted air of city life and move to the cleaner drier mountain air of Denver, Colorado.  It must have done the trick for a few years later, he did return to Evansville where he carried on with his portraiture work which he would sell and with the money he earned he would put it aside for his art college fund.  In 1874 he moved to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design.   This establishment was founded in 1825 by a group of artists including Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, Martin E. Thompson, all students of the American Academy of Fine Arts, who had grown increasingly impatient with the constraints of the Academy, and in 1825 they had left to found the National Academy of Design. The idea for its existence was said to be

“…to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition…”

On the Housatonic River Connecticut by Theodore Robinson (1877)

Whilst there, Robinson studied under Lemuel Everett Wilmarth and when not at the Academy would spend hours sketching in nearby Central Park.  We have seen with many of the European academies, the narrow and rigid academic training in art was not for everybody with some aspiring young artists wanting more freedom with regards what was being taught and how it was being taught.  As far as Robinson and several his fellow students were concerned there was a two-fold problem with the American Academy of Fine Art.   Firstly, the Academy was run by a group of older artists who were landscape painters and concentrated on teaching that artistic genre despite many of the students, including Robinson, wanting more emphasis on figurative painting.  Secondly, the students believed that their prospects to exhibit, and ultimately sell their work, was being limited by the Academy.  Another reason could have been that in 1874 the Academy temporarily suspended activities.  Rumours flew around that the establishment was in financial trouble and so its students felt they had nowhere to turn and wondered about their future.  In 1875, this dissatisfaction and confusion about the future lead Wilmarth, along with a group of his students, including Robinson, to form the Art Students League. This Art Students League met and held its classes in a small rented space over a shop at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.  It was so small a space that a daily schedule of studio instruction had to be organised, with women studying in the afternoon and men at night. However, this alternative organisation allowed these painters a greater influence on their curriculum and would also allow them greater access to exhibition space.

Suzette (also known as Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Theodore Robinson fulfilled one of his artistic goals two years later in 1876 when he went to study art in Paris, a city looked upon at the time as the centre of the world of art.  Most American art students during the second half of the nineteenth century viewed their study in New York as a stopping-off point on their artistic journey before they headed to Europe.   The first art tutor Robinson studied with in Paris was the French painter, August Carolus-Duran, whose studio was in the Boulevard Montparnasse.  Carolus-Duran was renowned for his elegant portrayal of members of French high society and people travelled from far and wide to become one of his sitters.

Portrait of Mrs Astor by August Carolus-Duran (1890)

Carolus-Duran was probably well known to artists in America for his 1890 portrait of the American banker’s wife, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of American high society in the latter half of the 19th century, who maintained the stance of “old money” in the face of changing times and values when the nouveau riche were coming to the fore.   Also, studying under Carolus-Duran, at that time, were John Singer Sargent, the landscape and genre painter Carroll Beckwith and the muralist and author Will Hicock Low.   It was Low who recalled being with Theodore Robinson at that time in Carolus-Duran’s atelier, when he wrote in his 1908 book A Chronicle of Friendship, 1873-1900:

“…Among the new arrivals one year was Theodore Robinson, who, timidly, with due respect for my two years experience in Paris student life, sought my acquaintance… Frail, with a husky, asthmatic voice and a laugh that shook his meager sides and yet hardly made itself heard, yet blessed with as keen a sense of humor as anyone I have ever known, Robinson was received at once into our little circle. At first he seemed almost negative, so quietly he took his place among us, but once the shell of diffidence was pierced few of the men had thought as much or as independently…”

Arabs Arguing by Jean-Leon Gérome

Theodore Robinson was only with Carolus-Duran for a short time and rumour has it that they did not agree on some aspects of the artistic training,  Robinson moved on and became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, and a pupil at the atelier of the French painter and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérome, an artist, who had always been a great believer and follower of the painting style known as Academicism, a style of painting and sculpture produced under the influence of European academies of art. Gérome was noted for his portraiture and his history paintings which often featured Arabian scenes, which was known as Orientalism, and was an art genre of Academic art, popular in the nineteenth century which represented the Middle East.  The fact that Robinson was accepted into this atelier is testament to his artistic ability as it was the most admired studio and the one that most American students wanted to attend.

Spinning by Theodore Robinson

In 1877 Theodore Robinson achieved another of his artistic goals, one which every art student strived for; he had a painting, Une Jeune Fille, accepted at that year’s Salon. One can only imagine how delighted he was to get his painting hung at the Salon.  In a letter to his mother he wrote of his joy:

“…My picture is accepted and I tremble with joy…”

The Bridge at Grèz-sur-Loing by Corot (c.1860)

Robinson went on to exhibit his works at five more Salons during the 1880’s.  Following the time spent on his Salon entry and its inclusion at the 1877 Salon, Robinson decided to take a break from his studies and head out of the city and delve into the nearby countryside around Fontainebleau.  He and some of his fellow artists, Will Low, Birge Harrison and Walter Launt Palmer travelled to the village of Grèz which was on the banks of the River Loing on the southern edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, some fifteen kilometres south of Barbizon.  At the time, this was an area that was awash with artist colonies such as those at Barbizon, Grèz-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery but at this time, Grèz was the most popular with artists who wanted to spend the day painting en plein air and the evening spent talking about art.  This popular idyll was described in the book Theodore Robinson’s La Debacle, 1892: an American Artist in France by Betsy Kathryn Koeninger, in which she quotes the words of the Scottish painter John Lavery, a student at the Académie Julien who stayed in the village in the early 1880’s.   He described the ambience of the village and its surroundings:

“…a pleasant place surrounded by large fields of white and yellow water lilies and poplars and willows. There was also the much-painted bridge… a ruined castle and an ancient church… [and] Madame Chevillon’s Inn with its long garden down to the water’s edge where guests could sit in bathing dress to eat after a swim or a sail in a skiff…”

Farmhouse at Grèz by Theodore Robinson

Robinson’s friend and colleague from the Academy, Birge Harrison, who had travelled to Grèz with him and remembers him, wrote an article in the December 1916 edition of the Century Magazine, entitled With Stevenson in Grèz.  He wrote:

“…Robinson was far from handsome in the classic sense. An enormous head, with goggle-eyes and a whopper-jaw, was balanced on a frail body by means of a neck of extreme tenuity; and stooping shoulders, with a long, slouching gait, did not add anything of grace or of beauty to his general appearance.” It was not Robinson’s physical prowess that interested Harrison, but his strength of character. “[Out] of those goggle-eyes shone the courage of a Bayard, and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor…”

Another visitor to Grèz that summer was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and he and Theodore Robinson immediately became good friends.

Once summer was over Robinson returned to Paris and his studies at Gérome’s studio and to copying the paintings of the Masters at the Louvre.  The climate in Paris during that winter was harsh and Robinson, a poverty-stricken artist, lived in poor conditions and suffered with colds and asthma attacks, all of which affected his work and he wrote to his mother:

“…When I’ve taken cold and cough all night my work is greatly interfered with not to mention the inconvenience it causes…”

On the Canal by Theodore Robinson

In 1878, Robinson decided to send one of his paintings to the Society of American Artists first exhibition.  The group had been founded the previous year by artists of attending the National Academy of Design which they believed did not satisfactorily meet their needs, and was far too conservative in its thinking.  This was the same reasoning behind the formation of the Art Students League which Robinson helped Wilmarth to organise in 1875.  The Society of American Artists was very valuable to those American artists who, having studied art in European cities, were returning home but discovered that there were inadequate prospects to exhibit their work. Robinson became a regular contributor to their annual exhibitions.

In my next blog I will be looking more at Theodore Robinson’s life and a very important and influential friendship he had with his French neighbour.

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Apart from the usual internet sources I found many details about Theodore Robinson’s life in an essay written  for the catalogue of the Theodore Robinson exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York in March 2000 by the American writer and art curator, D. Scott Atkinson.