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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The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.