Published: October 26, 2004
Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), generally recognized as the first American artist to master the principles of Impressionism, was a leader in advancing the style among his countrymen. His paintings, moreover, are distinctive and of the quality required to stand the test of time. Yet, he is rarely cited as an outstanding American painter, and is little known to the public today.
A fascinating exhibition, “In Monet’s Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny,” organized by Sona Johnston, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is on view there through January 9. The show’s nearly 60 paintings and catalog offer new glimpses into the crucial influence of French Impressionist master Claude Monet’s in converting Robinson to Impressionism and the American’s outstanding achievements while in Giverny, 1887-1892.
Robinson was much admired by contemporary artists and critics, but his paintings did not sell particularly well, and he was short of funds for most of his career. He had only one solo exhibition – at New York’s Macbeth Gallery – the year before he died. After his early death, his work faded from public view.
Born in Vermont, the son of a minister who later ran a clothing store, Robinson grew up in Wisconsin. He began art studies at the National Academy of Design in 1874 and then helped organize the Art Students League. His early work, mostly of rural scenes, was in the American genre tradition of Winslow Homer.
In 1876, young Robinson traveled to Paris, where he trained under academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. For a time, his landscapes and genre scenes reflected not only his academic training but the somber palette and pensive mood of the Barbizon School. At the age of 25 he made his debut at the Paris salon.
Fellow American artist Birge Harrison, who painted with Robinson in Grez, France, described him about this time as “far from handsome…[with] an enormous head…goggle eyes and a whopper jaw…balanced on a frail body….[out] of those goggle eyes shone…courage…and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor.” As Harrison suggested, Robinson suffered from chronic asthma that sapped his strength, and was constantly short of money. Nevertheless, he traveled back and forth between France and Europe and turned out a credible array of works.
Back in the United States for a time after his first sojourn in France, he assisted John LaFarge on decorative art projects, saving enough funds to return to France for extended stays. The most significant period, which is the focus of the Baltimore exhibition, encompassed his sojourns with Monet in Giverny.
In that now-famous French village he was befriended by Monet, who usually kept his distance from the numerous Americans seeking to be near the French master while soaking up the ambience of the area. Over the span of a half-dozen years, with Monet’s invaluable guidance, Robinson’s art was transformed from the dark palette and introspective feel of the Barbizon School to the freer brushwork, brighter colors, commitment to plein air painting, sensitivity to atmospheric changes and plentiful sunlight of French Impressionism.
“Claude Monet’s art,” Robinson wrote in 1892, “is vital, robust, healthy. Like Corot’s, but in more exuberant fashion, it shows the joy of living … There is always a delightful sense of movement, vibration and life.”
Robinson and Monet dined together, had long conversations about painting and critiqued each other’s work. Yet the American’s mature Impressionism did not slavishly imitate the French titan’s style; he forged his own approach. In it, Robinson adhered to the American realist tradition and admiration for Winslow Homer in terms of strong, accurate figure forms and a firm sense of structure, while incorporating Monet’s concern for the effects of color, light and atmosphere, a more high-keyed palette and expressive brushstrokes.
Monet’s “Field of Poppies, Giverny,” 1885, from the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is included in the current exhibition as an example of the Frenchman’s influence on the American. This panoramic view of the village, seen across an expanse of vivid blooms, helped inspire Robinson’s images. It is one of five Monets in the show.
In developing his own Impressionist aesthetic, his aim, Robinson wrote in his journal, was to combine Impressionism’s “brilliancy and light of real outdoors” with “austerity, the sobriety, that has always characterized good painting.”
His favorite Giverny subjects were landscapes and intimate vignettes of farm and village life. In Giverny, “Robinson painted his finest works,” says Johnston.
One of Robinson’s earliest and largest Giverny canvases, “La Vachère,” 1888, painted for the Paris Salon, is a sun-filled, full-length picture of a contemplative peasant girl and her cow standing amidst verdant foliage. With its forceful brushwork, solid drafting of forms, use of jewel-like colors and emphasis on the effects of sunlight, this bright depiction set the tone for what was to follow. “The overall effect is a figure-study framed in an Impressionist landscape,” art historian D. Scott Atkinson has observed.
Striking a similar theme is “The Layett,” 1892, in which a young woman knits in the shelter of a garden. In “Autumn Sunlight,” 1888, a solitary woman pauses from gathering wood to stand in a sylvan setting, all painted with broken strokes of color.
“By the Brook,” 1891, shows a peasant woman stopping beside a simple bridge spanning a country stream populated by a gaggle of ducks. The harmonious color scheme adds to the appeal of this rural vignette. Other paintings focused on activities along brooks and around the village watering place.
“The Young Violinist (Margaret Perry),” 1889, depicts the young daughter of American painter Lila Cabot Perry, violin in hand, walking through a wooded setting whose dappled colors are animated by sunshine.
Perhaps the most beautiful figurative work in the exhibition is “La Debâcle,” 1892, in which Robinson’s favorite model and close but mysterious friend, Marie, glances up from reading Emile Zola’s recent novel of the same title. This elusive woman, whose identity has never been pinned down, appears to have been the object of Robinson’s unrequited love. Marie’s refusal to marry him may have hastened his final departure from France in 1892. He never married.
In the harmoniously hued “La Debâcle,” the bright yellow of the book, the blue and pink of the model’s dress, the tan of the small bridge and the greenish tone of the verdant landscape come together in a masterful Impressionist composition.
Since models were expensive and Robinson was poor, he often utilized photographs of local people in composing figural canvases. The Phillips Collection’s “Two in a Boat,” 1891, showing two women reading in the bow of a flat-bottomed skiff, is clearly based on the artist’s photo of a nearly identical scene. A harmonious blend of blues and violets, this picture is interestingly cropped, with an elevated perspective, reflecting Robinson’s interest in Japanese prints, of which was an avid collector.
In contrast to the pensive note struck in most of his Giverny canvases, Robinson’s “The Wedding March,” 1892, immortalizing the marriage of American artist Theodore Earl Butler and Monet’s stepdaughter Suzanne Hoschedé, is lively and joyous. It depicts the happy couple, bathed in sunshine, leading the wedding party down a Giverny street headed from the town hall to the church. “The spontaneity of Robinson’s brushwork – long, thin strokes for the figures, and short, thick daubs of greens, yellows and earth colors for the surrounding landscape – echoes the forceful stride of the figures,” observes American Impressionist scholar William H. Gerdts.
In his expansive, expressively painted, plein art landscapes of the town, Robinson favored bird’s-eye views of village structures and grain fields from high in the surrounding hills. In “Val d’Arconville,” 1888, a young woman in white – Marie – reads on a hillside above the town. “Giverny,” 1889, offers an appealing view of the town and its environs.
As their friendship deepened, Robinson reported in his diary that Monet asked him to critique some of the Frenchman’s initial efforts in the Rouen Cathedral series. (A later “Sunset” view, dating to 1894, is in the show.)
The American liked the concept so much that he essayed a smaller, but impressive trio of landscapes titled “Valley of the Seine,” 1892. They show the same scene from the same lofty site in bright sunlight, in sunshine with cloud shadows, and on a gray, overcast day, respectively. Monet said the latter was “the best landscape he had seen of mine,” Robinson wrote in his journal. While not as numerous as Monet’s series of grain stacks (“End of Day, Autumn” of 1890-91 is on view) poplars and the Rouen Cathedral, Robinson’s three-part series was a significant achievement for his day.
Although Robinson was one of the few American artists to establish close ties to Monet, many of his countrymen found inspiration in the French Impressionist’s work. Writing in the exhibition catalog, Monet authority Paul Hayes Tucker observes that “one of the most important mandates that Monet by example gave his American admirers in Giverny was to find significant subjects in their own country and to devote their efforts to immortalizing them, a challenge some artists, like Robinson, deeply appreciated after learning the value of place from the man they had learned to revere.”
Overcoming his earlier opinion that “American life is…unpaintable,” Robinson later wrote from France that he intended to return home to paint “virile American pictures.” Leaving Giverny for good in 1892, he searched, with varying degrees of success, for sympathetic locales where he could apply his Impressionist style to American scenes.
While he traveled to several states in these final years, his output was limited by ill health, poverty and aesthetic difficulties with American light, which he found harsher than that of France. Ironically, among the significant American Impressionists of his day, Robinson had perhaps the least success in depicting his homeland.
He melded subtle hues, a spacious atmosphere and a carefully composed image to cast a colorful, even romantic, glow over the working canal and locks of a canal near Napanoch, N.Y. Offered to but declined by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Port Ben, Delaware and Hudson Canal,” 1893, entered the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1900.
While ensconced at the venerable Holley House in Cos Cob, Conn. (now the Bush-Holley Historic Site, maintained by the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich and open to the public), Robinson painted notable canvases of the harbor and boats around the Riverside Yacht Club. He created a lovely vignette of John H. Twachtman’s daughters tip-toeing across rocks in the stream behind their father’s house in Greenwich.
Robinson also painted a fine view of Manhattan’s Union Square, now in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art, and splendid views of the West River Valley in his native Vermont in 1895, the year before his death.
During Impressionism’s early years in America, Robinson’s Giverny works received more critical attention than any other expatriate artist, increasing his influence on countrymen trying the new style. Yet he was hardly a natural to be the leading – and trailblazing – American Impressionist. Shy and retiring, subject to bouts of depression, slowed by the debilitating effects of chronic asthma, he nonetheless showed the way to the successes of Impressionism in his homeland.
Curator Johnston, who mounted a Robinson retrospective in 1973, deserves much of the credit for reviving interest in the work of this American master. Her revelatory research, informative catalog and appealing exhibition should go a long way toward repositioning Theodore Robinson to the front ranks of American Impressionists, not only because he was among the first, but because he left an enduring legacy of beautiful art.
The catalog, with major chapters by Johnston and Tucker, contains excerpts from correspondence between Robinson and Monet and from Robinson’s journal. Along with Johnston’s astute commentaries on each work in the exhibition, the catalog offers new insights into the Robinson-Monet relationship and its effects on the American’s style.
In a symposium at the Baltimore Museum on Saturday, October 30, 9 am to 1 pm, curator Johnston, Monet authority Tucker and Nineteenth Century American art scholar David Park Curry will discuss Monet’s impact on Robinson and how the American painter popularized Impressionism in the United States. For information, 410-396-6321.
“In Monet’s Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny,” travels to the Phoenix Art Museum (February 4-May 8) and the Wadsworth Atheneum (June 4-September 4).
The Baltimore Museum of Art is at 10 Art Museum Drive at 31st Street, three miles north of the Inner Harbor. For information, 410-396-7100.
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