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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.