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.

Advertisements

The Life Line by Winslow Homer

The Life Line by Winslow Homer (1884)

When I was flicking through my ever increasing number of art books and catalogues I came across a painting which immediately immersed me in a wave of nostalgia and reminded me of a time almost forty years ago.  I will tell you why at the end of this blog.  My featured artist today is one of the best loved American landscape and marine painter of the nineteenth century.  His name is Winslow Homer.

Winslow was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1836.  His mother, Henrietta Homer (née Benson) was a talented watercolour artist and acted as Winslow first art teacher. Both she and his father Charles Savage Homer hailed from New England.  Winslow had two brothers, one, two years older, Charles Savage Junior, and one, five years younger, Arthur.   He was brought up in an educated middle-class home by his parents in Cambridge Massachusetts.  By all accounts he led a very happy childhood walking in the countryside, fishing and playing with his brothers and his many cousins.  His father was quite a volatile man who changed jobs many times necessitating the uprooting of his family home on each occasion.  Although never a successful business man Winslow’s father, ever the optimist, always believed that things would soon come good and his fortune would be made.  It is therefore no surprise that when Winslow was just thirteen years of age his father gave up the family hardware business, left the family and joined the California Gold Rush.  Needless to say, all his dreams came to nought and after further spells in England and France in his futile attempt to gain some financial support for his money-making ideas he returned home to his family where he had to financially rely on his wife and family.

Winslow Homer graduated from high school and his father arranged for him to become an apprentice to J.H.Bufford a leading Boston commercial lithographic company.   Lithography was a very lucrative business at the time and was in great demand.   Winslow Homer not only learnt to draw but he developed a good business sense.  Although Winslow learnt all about lithography he found the work monotonous and wanted to concentrate on his real love – painting.  It could well have been his mother’s encouragement that finally turned him from being a journeyman illustrator to becoming “his own man” and so in 1857, on his twenty-first birthday, he left Buffords after being with them for two years. One thing his apprenticeship had taught him was that he wanted to be his own boss.  In Elizabeth Johns 2002 biography on Winslow Homer entitled, Winslow Homer, The Nature of Observation she quotes Homer’s comments regarding his days as an apprentice:

“…it was too fresh in my recollection to let me care to bind myself again.  From the time that I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master and never shall have any…”

Homer turned down the offer of employment from the magazine Harper’s Weekly but did work for them for a number of years on a freelance basis whilst continuing his career as a freelance illustrator.     He exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866, and in 1867, and at the age of forty-one,  he embarked on a trip to Paris where he lived for a year and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle.  Whilst in the French capital he continued to supply Harper’s Weekly with scenes depicting Parisian life.  Despite the change in style of French art, Winslow Homer remained faithful to his love of paintings of peasant life and was a great admirer of Millet and his works of art.

Throughout the 1870s, Homer continued painting mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting.   In 1875, Homer gave up working as a commercial illustrator and declared that he would continue to exist solely on the money he made from his paintings.   Homer started painting regularly with watercolours in 1873 whilst staying in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  From the beginning, his technique was natural, fluid and confident, demonstrating his innate talent for a difficult medium.    In 1877, Homer exhibited for the first time at the Boston Art Club with the oil painting, An Afternoon Sun, and from that first offering until 1909, the year before he died, he exhibited at the Boston Art Club on a regular basis.

Homer became a member of The Tile Club, which was a group of thirty-one notable New York painters, sculptors and architects who met between 1877 and 1887. The group was inspired by William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement and they created hand-painted ceramic tiles and promoted the decorative arts.  This group of artists and writers met frequently to exchange ideas and organize outings for painting, as well as foster the creation of decorative tiles. For a short time, Winslow Homer designed tiles for fireplaces.

Winslow Homer travelled to England in 1881 and settled in Cullercoats a Tyneside coastal village on the northeast coast.  Whilst there, he completed many paintings depicting the lives of working men and women.  His works often depicted the ferocity and relentless power of the sea and the men and women who braved those unforgiving elements of nature.  It was whilst staying at Cullercoats that on October 21st 1881 he witnessed the sinking off Tynemouth of the vessel, Iron Crown,  and the daring rescue of its crew by the local life saving society and it is from that memory, which is captured in Winslow’s painting, The Life Line.  The wreck of the Iron Crown at Cullercoats involved the volunteer Life Brigade who managed to rescue four of the crew using a rocket and breeches buoy. The local artist George Edward Horton, a member of the Bewick Club and the Cullercoats Colony of artists later recalled his first encounter with Wilmslow Homer:

“…As I stood watching the rescue operations a little cab turned up with an old Cullercoats fisherman on the dicky: out stepped a dapper medium sized man with a watercolour sketching block and sat down on the ways. He made a powerful drawing with some watercolour and some pastel….”

During the night of the disaster, Winslow Homer made sketches as he stood on the beach.  Immediately following the incident he painted an austere and dramatic canvas in oils depicting sailors huddled against the sea wall as they waited to find out the fate of their companions who were still in the raging seas.  Early during the rescue of the Iron Crown the life savers used a contraption known as a breeches-buoy to reach the stricken sailors.  Two years later in 1883,  when Homer was back in America at Atlantic City on the New Jersey coast, he went to talk to the local life-saving crews and asked them about this breeches-buoy device and watched a demonstration of the use of it for rescue from the sea.  With what he had seen with his own eyes two years earlier and what he had subsequently learnt when he got back home, he painted his large, impressive, and immediately popular painting The Life Line in 1884, which was just one of several paintings he completed at this time on the rescue theme.

The Life Line does not depict a specific rescue but it was intended as a general representation of the distress and heroism that were inexorable aspects of life by and on the high seas.  This work of art by Winslow Homer is all about the age-old themes of peril at sea and the power of nature, but at the same time honours modern heroism and yet at the same time encompasses the thrill of unexpected intimacy between strangers, in this case, the male rescuer and the female who is being saved, and who are being thrown together by the catastrophe.

Look carefully at the painting and what often strikes the viewer on their initial perusal of the scene is the fact that the face of the male rescuer is obliterated by the lady’s red scarf.  How strange is that?  Homer did this as he believed nothing should distract the viewer from the whole image – the actual rescue.  It was Homer’s belief that the intensity of the painting would be increased if we just focused our attention on the physical strength and brute force of the rescuer as he holds on tightly to the woman inching his way back to the shore.  The two dangle in the breeches-buoy in the trough between mountainous waves.  The woman being rescued lies unconsciously in his grasp.  Her head is thrown back.  Her arms lie limply by her side.  Her clothes have been drenched and torn by the ferocity of the sea.  She lies there in the man’s arms having been rescued from the ship, which we just catch a glimpse of with its tattered sails in the top left of the painting.

This is truly a terrifying depiction of a rescue at sea.  When Winslow Homer’s The Life Line was first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1884 it became an instant sensation.   Some critics, at the time of the painting being exhibited, commented on its powerful sensuality.  For them the depiction of the man and the woman in the painting, had it not been part of a life and death situation, may well have been lovers locked in an intimate embrace.  The sensuousness and sexuality of the image exhibits itself in the wet clothes clinging to the woman’s flesh with their drenched bodies clutched tightly together.  Some were shocked by Homer’s exposing of the woman’s bare knees!!!  Homer’s composition propels us into the midst of the action with colossal waves rolling past, drenching the semiconscious woman and her anonymous saviour. Homer’s painting, The Life Line was immediately recognized by critics as a major contribution to American art, portraying a heroic, contemporary subject with both painterly virtuosity and detailed observation.

This masterpiece by Winslow Homer can be found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will feature in their upcoming exhibition entitled Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” which runs from September 22nd to December 16th 2012.

Finally I have to tell you why this painting brought on a wave of nostalgia for a time forty years earlier.  It was in the early 70’s that I sat the first of my nautical exams and at the oral part of it I was asked by the examiner to describe how, if I was on a sinking ship, would I rig a breeches-buoy.  Thankfully I never had to put the theory into practice!