The Origins of American Impressionism
By Jeffrey Morseburg
Theodore Robinson is considered the quintessential American Impressionist. Through many years of painting in the art colonies of France he gradually assimilated the influences of the plein-air Barbizon school and then – through his friendship with Claude Monet – the then modern concepts of the French Impressionists. Gradually he melded these French influences with the American national character and his own artistic sensibilities, helping to create the artistic style we now describe broadly as “American Impressionism.” Robinson was a gentle, modest man whose letters and diaries reveal an artist who was always striving to improve, absorbing what he saw and experienced through his travels and friendships, but always remaining true to his own solitary artistic path. Throughout his life he suffered from disabling asthma attacks, which limited his artistic production and cut his life short at only forty-four. Despite his brief life he was known not only for his artistic accomplishments, but as a “bon ami” who left a life-long impact on the many artistic friends he left behind. This quiet Midwesterner’s works grace museums across the United States and he has been the subject of a number of books and exhibitions at major museums. Theodore Robinson’s place in the history of American Art is secure and the landscapes and figurative works he left are among the most sought-after examples of American Impressionism.
Theodore Pierson Robinson was born in the small town of Irasburg, Vermont on June 3, 1852. His parents, Elijah Robinson and Ellen Brown Robinson, had grown up in Jamaica, Vermont and were married in nearby Nefane in 1844. Theodore was the third of six children, but only he, his older brother Hamline and younger brother John survived into adulthood. Elijah Robinson grew up on a farm, became a Methodist minister and then, plagued with asthma attacks, eventually left the ministry. He moved his family from Vermont to Barry, Illinois in 1855 and then it has been said, to the southern Wisconsin town of Evansville in 1856, but as the 1860 United States Census shows them living some distance away in Whitewater, Wisconsin, so the Robinsons must have been there for a short time.
Theodore Robinson attended school at the new Methodist Seminary in Evansville where he won prizes for his penmanship and decorated the hymnals with his drawings. Like his father before him, asthma handicapped Robinson throughout his childhood and because of the disease he became an introspective young man who spent his hours reading, writing and drawing. Evansville was and remains a farming town, and even though Robinson was less active than other children, the agrarian nature of the community left an indelible impression on him and shaped the art he would produce later in life. Because of his artistic talent, Robinson left home at seventeen to study at the Chicago Academy of Design, a new school that was to become the monumental Art Institute of Chicago. Unfortunately, the Great Chicago Fire of October 10, 1871 cut his artistic studies short. After Robinson returned home to Evansville, he was sidelined by a severe asthma attack and in order to recover, in 1872 he left Wisconsin for the dry climate of Denver, returning home in the spring of 1873.
In 1874, after a few years at home, where he earned and saved money painting small crayon portraits for people in Southern Wisconsin, Robinson left home again for New York where he began his formal studies at the National Academy of Design. At this time the National Academy was dominated by the aging painters of the Hudson River School, so the emphasis of the institution was on landscape painting and what students saw as a tired, inflexible curriculum at the school. When Robinson’s teacher at the Academy, Lemuel Everett Wilmarth (1835-1916), decided to form a new student-run organization, the now legendary Art Students League, the young painter was one of the founders. While Robinson remained a student at the National Academy, even winning a award for figure drawing, he worked concurrently at the Art Students League. In the years after the Civil War, in order to further their studies, most serious art students went to Europe. While previous generations of American painters had favored Düsseldorf or Munich, Robinson and most of his contemporaries of the 1870s and 1880s chose to study in Paris, which had become the art capital of the world.
Theodore Robinson arrived in France in October of 1876 and enrolled in the atelier of the flamboyant portrait artist Emile-Auguste Carlous-Duran (1837-1917). Duran was famous for his broadly brushed “bravura” portraits of the rich and famous figures of the Belle Epoch that were highly influenced by the Spanish Baroque painters he adored. Although the Atelier Duran was in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, English was a common language there with the Americans John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Caroll Beckwith (1852-1917), Birge Harrison and Will Hicok Low (1853-1933) already enrolled. Since Low had already been in the French capital for two years, Robinson sought his advice and soon the more outgoing painter forged a deep friendship with the frail, retiring Midwesterner.
The ateliers of Paris were like artistic fraternities and the painters formed fast and often deep friendships as Robinson did with Low and Beckwith. In the ateliers the artists drew and painted from the model for hours on end, with thickets of easels crowding the cramped and drafty studios. Standing on a posing platform, the model was almost obscured by a thick haze of tobacco smoke. Each artist toiled for months mastering the difficult task of drawing accurately from the model – avoiding the approbation of the “maitre” if they were lucky or earning his praise, if they were exceedingly fortunate. To relieve the competitive pressure, the students – who after all, were spirited young men – developed elaborate initiation rituals and played pranks on each other. Into this atmosphere stepped Theodore Robinson who was older, more mature and more serious than most of his fellow students. In spite of his shyness, the other artists were pleased to discover that Robinson was a boon companion. Will Low described him years later … “Frail, with a hearty asthmatic voice and a laugh that shook his meager sides, and yet hardly made itself heard, timid and reticent, saying little, yet blessed with as keen a sense of humor as anyone I have every known.”
After a short time, Robinson came to the conclusion that he had chosen the wrong atelier to matriculate in. Perhaps the brushy nature of Duran’s work didn’t appeal to Robinson or he – like many other students – felt the training at Duran’s was weaker in drawing. In any event he moved onto the atelier of Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), the famous painter of Middle Eastern scenes – Orientalists these painters were called – who was a stern taskmaster, but considered by many to be the finest teacher in Belle Epoch Paris. Under the watchful eye of Gerome, Robinson’s work steadily improved and by 1877 he managed to have a modest but forthright little portrait titled “Mimi” accepted by the prestigious Salon.
Now, in those days of the French ateliers and academies, the students working under the supervision of the French masters toiled indoors during the school term, usually lodging in one of the little rabbit warrens of musty apartments nearby. With the fall, winter and spring spent locked up under stifling conditions, they were relived to be let loose during the summer, allowing them to get some fresh air and enabling them to paint “en plein-air” in the countryside as the practice of outdoor painting was described. The years that Theodore Robinson spent in the art colonies where the young artists gathered and learned to paint the landscape would shape Robinson’s artistic career and give him the artistic friendships that sustained him for the rest of his life.
Since the 1830’s, the royal forest of Fontainebleau had been a popular spot with the first generation of plein-air painters known forever as the “Barbizon School.” This artistic movement drew its name from the tiny village of Barbizon where the artists first gathered in the 1820s and some later settled. From Barbizon – which was just several hours carriage ride from Paris in the early years and an easy train trip later on – they ventured into the forest where they painted on little panels or canvasses, working directly from nature. They then worked up larger compositions in their studios from these spontaneous sketches. In a time when the most successful painters rendered painstakingly crafted genre and history paintings with glass-smooth surfaces to show in the august halls of the annual Salon, the Barbizon painters – with their loose brushwork and choice of modest subjects – were a controversial sensation. However, as the years went by, the artistic establishment grudgingly accepted the Barbizon artists and they became and an inspiration to hundreds of aspiring young artists studying in Paris.
After the Civil War, when American painters began to join their French brethren in the artist’s garrets of Paris, Barbizon was still the famous home of the aging landscape painter Pierre-Etienne Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) his best friend, Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), famed for his depictions of the realities of peasant life and their companion, the landscape painter Narcisse-Virgil Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876). Even though these older French artists did not teach – or usually even mix – with the young artists drawn to their village, the painters came anyway
and clever innkeepers saw a business opportunity in feeding, lodging and providing tobacco and spirits to these bohemian visitors in berets and painting smocks. For decades, a constantly changing cast of younger artists ventured to Barbizon for the summer, hoping the magic of the legendary forest would rub off on their work too.
This annual summer pilgrimage to Barbizon eventually spilled over to the nearby village of Grez-sur-Loing, on the banks of a broad river, offering painters the diversions of swimming, boating or waterborne high jinks when they were not at work on a painting. A group of English speaking artists discovered Grez in 1875 and by the following summer there were a number of painters in residence there including the Scottish painter Robert Alan Mobray Stevenson (1847-1900), known to everyone as Bob, Welden Hawkins (1849-1910), Irishman Frank O’Meara (1853-1888) and the American Birge Harrison (1854-1929). Stevenson’s cousin, a young writer named Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was another talented young settler in Grez. Most of the artists stayed at the Pension Chevillion, a small inn with lovely gardens that sat on the banks of the Loing, adjacent to the stone bridge and the ruins of a Norman castle.
It was in Grez that Robinson settled in that summer of 1877, his first experience painting out-of-doors, learning from his more advanced friends and from what was called “the school of nature.” His early plein-air works were modest landscapes and scenes of the French villages in and around Grez. Robinson won over his companions that summer, becoming close friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, who also suffered from debilitating asthma attacks. They shared a bond in their unwillingness to let their affliction stop them from wringing the most out of life and their passion for art and literature. In his book, Birge Harrison later described Robinson as having the “soul of a poet and a dreamer.” Robert Louis Stevenson, who made his mark as a journalist before his great novels were published also wrote movingly about life in the art colonies of Barbizon and Grez in the popular magazines of the day.
After a trip to the Normandy coast where he painted at Veules, Robinson returned to Paris in the fall of 1877. He continued his studies in the Gerome atelier, copied works by old and contemporary masters in the Louvre and struggled mightily with his asthma, which must have been exacerbated by the damp Parisian climate and his musty lodgings. In 1878 he shipped a painting home to the Society of American Artists for the first time. This was a new organization made up primarily of young French-trained painters who were not comfortable with the strictures of the conservative National Academy of Design. This entry marked the beginning of Robinson’s American exhibition record. That summer we know he returned to Grez with some of his fellow artists because a recently discovered painting of water lilies is inscribed “Grez-sur-Loing” and dated that year.
Later that fall, Robinson managed the resources to venture south with his friend, Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) another. former student of Gerome They traveled over the Dolomites to the magical art city of Venice. Robinson was struck down by a fever in Venice, perhaps brought on by his frailty, a situation that Cox recounted in an letter written to his own family that December: “Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up. He caught some fever there and was some days in a German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…and almost afraid he should never get out alive. He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come round.”
Apparently Robinson was able to make another foray to Italy the following year, one that is not well documented in Robinson studies. There are paintings from as far south as Capri, apparently done on the 1879 trip when he met James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) in Venice. Whistler seems to have influenced almost every young American painter he met. In 1878 the eccentric artist “won” his famous libel suit against the art critic John Ruskin but was awarded a single farthing in damages and was forced to declare bankruptcy. He ventured to Venice in order to fulfill a commission for a series of etchings to help him pay his legal bills. The meeting between Robinson and the monocle-wearing Whistler must have occurred in the fall of 1879 when the older artist was working on his marvelous pastels of the floating city. The link between the two painters is confirmed by a study inscribed to Robinson by Whistler – “Souvenir de Venise to Theodore Robinson from James McNeil Whistler” – and signed with Whistler’s famous butterfly monogram. Some art historians feel that exposure to Whistler’s highly atmospheric plein-air work and hearing his views on art may have had an influence on the younger painter’s artistic development. Robinson’s travels concluded the artist’s formal studies and he returned home to America late in 1879, ready to embark on his career as a professional painter.
After a brief visit home, early in 1880 Robinson set up shop in New York City, opening a studio at 188 Broadway. Unfortunately, sales were hard to come by and the new venture was not a success, forcing the artist to return to Wisconsin in the spring. The downtrodden painter, who had always battled the bleak moods of depression, lodged with his family. When his younger brother married, Theodore established a close to his wife Mary. John was a dedicated farmer and apparently, a man of few words and fewer letters, so it was with Mary that Theodore corresponded. He wrote to her faithfully from wherever his travels took him and she updated his family on his health and observations. After all, this was an era where travel was difficult and expensive and he made places that were only spots on a map come alive through his letters and stories. Despite his obvious affection for his family and hometown, Robinson was frustrated to find himself living in a small town and his friend Will Low quoted him as writing – in a masterpiece of understatement – “that Evansville, Wisconsin ‘was not Athens’ – or Paris.”
While Robinson longed to be in a major art city like New York or Paris, he threw himself into painting the rural Wisconsin subjects he found around him. Recently discovered works dated in the summer of 1880 confirm that he was drawing and painting cows and sheep on the local farms and painting genre scenes. These compositions of local people going about their daily activities are reminiscent of the early works of Winslow Homer (1836-1910), an artist who Robinson was known to admire. The small studies done on the farm show that while his brushwork was still quite careful and tight, he had mastered the task of depicting figures in full sunlight. He had banished black from his palette and the paintings were alive with warm yellows and subtle spring greens. The drawings and paintings that Robinson did on the farm were not the romanticized views of rural life favored by urban painters. Instead, they were painted by an artist who knew more of farm life. He treated each cow he sketched sympathetically, as an individual character. In spite of the fine work that he did in and around Evansville, his period of artistic exile was soon to come to an end.
Will Low, Robinson’s closet comrade who had returned from Europe and was living in New York, came to the rescue with the offer of a job teaching art at Mrs. Sylvanevus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies in New York City. Robinson arrived in the east late in 1880 or early in 1881, renting a studio at 1267 Broadway. Even though his teaching pay was meager, the artist’s frugality allowed him to get by. Being in New York, the art capital of a young nation had its privileges and in May of 1881 Robinson was elected to membership in the Society of American Artists. While he remained active with the older National Academy, where he had once studied, the Society would be his chief exhibition venue for the remainder of his all-to-brief career.
That same month of May, Robinson began working with the great American decorative artist John LaFarge (1835-1910) on mural commissions. LaFarge was part of the movement now known as “The American Renaissance” and he and his staff were kept busy decorating the interiors of new public buildings and the mansions of newly minted Gilded Age millionaires. Towards the end of that month, he was called home to attend to his mother who was near death. After her passing Robinson and his father visited their native Vermont, but he soon returned to his decorating work for LaFarge, apparently working on a large commission for the Vanderbilt family. He did not relish the decorative work or working for the imperious LaFarge, but the opportunity allowed him to save money so that he could plot his return to France.
In 1882, after Robinson moved to another New York studio on 23rd Street, he traveled between there, Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, appraently doing decorating work on his own. Part of the summer of 1882 was spent painting with his old friend Abbott Thayer (1849-1921) on the picturesque island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. During the years of 1881 and 1882, Robinson’s output of easel paintings was reduced by the time and effort he was putting into decorative commissions but he managed to produce the academically-treated genre composition titled “Flower of Memory” in 1881 and a number of rural subjects the following year that were in keeping with the feeling of his Wisconsin works of 1880.
In 1883 he went to work for the decorating firm of Prentice-Treadwell, which had won the contract to decorate the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. While the work was clearly not what Robinson wanted to do, the ten months of hard work on the Opera decorations allowed him to save the money that would allow him to return to France. After spending time in New York and Boston over the winter of 1883 to1884, Robinson was able to sail to France in the spring.
In 1884, when Robinson returned to the continent he visited Paris and then settled in the art colony of Barbizon. Why he went there, to the more tourist-plagued old art colony rather than back to Grez is unknown, perhaps the changing nature of the colony that he had helped found – which was now full of Scandinavian painters – was the reason. In any event, he wrote home to his sister-in-law Mary that “…I have been in this little village all summer and winter is coming on. A friend and I have taken a studio + bed-room and will stay some longer – perhaps most of the winter. We go to Paris once in a while – it is only two hours + a half away. We are quite comfortably fixed – have a large room to work in and a bed-room ajoining with two beds – all for 9 dollars a month and taken care of. We take our meals at the hotel.”
The paintings that Robinson did during the first several years after his return to Europe are inconsistent – as though he seemed unsure of the direction that he wanted his work to take. Among his output, there were some figurative paintings that were handled in a more decorative manner, perhaps a vestige of the years he spent in the employ of the interior decoration firms. In his plein-air work Robinson largely abandoned the sunlit subjects that he had painted in during his four-year stay in the United States for modest landscapes done in a very limited palette.
In France Robinson also painted a number of small anecdotal works like “Cobbler of Old Paris.” He also did some interior scenes that are not altogether different from those by some of his American compatriots during the time he lived in New York. Some of the finest works he did in the mid-1880s are reminiscent of the Barbizon school, which is natural, because he was spending much of his time in the French art colony. Rather than paint in the forests surrounding Barbizon that had already been so prolifically painted, Robinson worked on the plains where Millet had depicted his monumental figures. These little works are modest in size and subject but are beautifully and crisply painted. He also traveled north to Holland, so the grey skies and darker tonalities of the Dutch school may have influenced his artistic production.
In 1886 Will Low and his French-born wife returned to Europe and they found Robinson waiting for them at the Gare St. Lazare in Paris. The life of an artist is seldom a predictable one – especially the frail Midwesterner’s – and throughout his short life Robinson’s friendship with Low helped to make his difficult path a little easier to travel. Once the Lows were settled in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly, a semblance of family life was brought into Robinson’s world. He spent much of his time living in their home, disappearing without comment to go and sketch in Barbizon or Grez or somewhere along the Seine and then appearing again several days later in time for dinner.
In June of 1886 Robinson viewed Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away impressed by their “…color and luminosity.” It is thought that a friend of Monet’s by the name of De Conchy had introduced Robinson to the great Impressionist a year earlier and that the two had called on him in Giverny. So, even before his eventual move to Giverny the American painter had a growing awareness and appreciation for Monet’s work.
That same year of 1886 Robinson met the love of his life, a Parisian artist’s model by the name of Marie. In his letters home the artist was so reticent that he never used his love’s full name or even confided the full extent of their relationship to his diary. In a letter sent to his sister-in-law Mary on May 20th of 1887, he wrote that “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.”
It is presumed that Robinson wanted to marry Marie but for some reason – perhaps his frail physical state or the fact that he was a struggling artist – the relationship was never resolved to the artist’s satisfaction. His difficulties with Marie clearly tortured the sensitive American as many anguished letters passed between he and the Lows and she was obviously the subject of dinner table conversations between Low, his wife and their lovesick friend. In any event Marie appears in many of Robinson’s most famous works and they spent time together for six years – up to the time he left France and, even after returning home he corresponded with her until his final days.
The last phase of Robinson’s life in France, which lasted from 1887 to 1892, revolved around the little agrarian hamlet of Giverny, located in the Valley of the Seine, about forty miles northeast of Paris. When the French Impressionist Claude Monet first settled there in 1883, Giverny consisted of two dusty streets – the Route Basse and the Route du Roi – and the narrow, rutted lanes that ran off of them and there were fewer than three hundred residents. Monet, who had lost his beloved wife several years before, was looking for a quiet village that wasn’t far from Paris to settle his large extended family, which consisted of his two sons and his companion Suzanne Hoschedes six children. From the train station a few miles down the road in Vernon, Monet could travel to Paris for business, which also made him close when wealthy collectors came to call. They rented a large, pink old pressing house known as “Le Pressoir” with a walled garden that allowed the artist the privacy he sought. Monet seemed to live above his means and it took a sizable advance from his Paris dealers – Durand-Ruel -to allow him to rent the large and comfortable home. Intending to stay for a short time, Monet ended up spending the second half of his long life in Giverny.
Although Monet’s name will forever be associated with Giverny, in the beginning, he was not its most popular resident. It was after all a small rural village and because Monet was an artist and an intellectual who kept himself aloof from the peasants that surrounded him, he was the object of some scorn and suspicion. Gradually, as his fortunes improved and he purchased more property, built additional studios and employed a number of the locals to improve his home and to maintain the lush gardens he planted, the lives of he, his family and the village became more intertwined. While the local residents initially viewed the stunning gardens he designed and planted as something of a waste of good farmland, by the turn of the century they were building trellises and planting flower gardens of their own. For a number of years after he settled in Giverny, Monet was away from the estate for extended sketching trips and it was about the time that other artists discovered the village that he began to paint the series of paintings of Giverny and its environs that are now some of his most famous works.
There has been a great deal of speculation as to exactly when and how the first foreign painters came to settle in Giverny. Some of the earliest residents even claimed that they didn’t know that Claude Monet lived there when they stumbled across the village while painting in the area. Theodore Robinson was among the earliest artistic visitors to Giverny and one of the colony’s first residents. He, Willard Leroy Metcalf and Theodore Wendel came to Giverny to sketch for the first time in 1886 and Angelina Baudy, who owned a cafe and grocery with her husband Lucien, helped to find them lodging in a local home while they painted in the neighborhood. It was in the following year of 1887 that the Giverny colony of expatriate painters began in earnest when Robinson and five other painters – apparently the Americans Theodore Wendel (1859-1932), Henry Fitch Taylor (1853-1925), Louis Ritter (1854-1892), Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925) and the Canadian William Blair Bruce (1859-1906) rented a house together for the season.
The American artists prevailed upon the Baudy family to build a series of rooms on their property to rent to painters and thus the Hotel Baudy was born. In the fall of 1887, Robinson moved out of the communal lodgings to one of the newly finished rooms at the Baudy. For the artists, life in Giverny revolved around the hotel where most of the artists stayed. While the villagers were friendly, it was a rural village and the residents toiled on the farm from early in the morning until after sundown and so they had little time or interest in socializing with artists from abroad. Their main interaction with the painters occurred when they were asked to pose for paintings or photographs. During the summers, as the number of foreign artists in Giverny grew, the inn became a lively place with amateur musicales in the evening and even dancing. Over good hearty dinners and drinks, the artists discussed art, current events and literature. Even the painters who rented homes in Giverny like Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) and her family took some of their meals at the hotel and socialized with the other artists.
The artists who settled in Giverny found the village and the surrounding countryside inspiring. With hills behind the village to the north, broad swaths of farmland in the valley of the seine to the south and the wide river and its tributary, the winding, poplar-shaded Epte, there were a variety of subjects to paint. Perhaps most importantly – as Monet and Robinson’s agreed in later conversations – Giverny wasn’t too pretty or picturesque. For Monet, the dewy air that veiled the river in the morning, which later dissolved in the warm sunlight, became a special lure.
After working out of doors all day, impromptu exhibitions of the painters’ daily studies were shown on the floors and tables of the hotel and the artists critiqued each other’s work. Their paintings also graced the walls of the hotel and its billiards room in a semi-permanent exhibit. A warm bonhomie developed between the artists who lived in Giverny and the memories they forged there were ones that they treasured for the rest of their lives. The Baudy family soon discovered that the influx of artists was good business for them and Mme Baudy even began to carry art supplies, saving the painters a trip to Paris and put a few more francs in the family coffers at the same time. After deciding that Giverny would be his home in France, Robinson spent most of each winter in New York, trying to establish a base of collectors and exhibiting his work there, but he seldom did any paintings in or around the city.
Theodore Robinson’s work reached artistic maturity soon after he settled in Giverny. The indecision that had marked his work of the past several years seemed to wash away like a summer storm in the Seine Valley. Working from photos Robinson took with his camera and from life, and he began a series of paintings of the local peasant girls. It was his master Gerome who is said to have introduced him to the practice of using photographic reference, but he may have also relied upon it for his decorative work in New York. Robinson took the cyanotype or albumem photos and drew a grid on them so he could transfer the image to a canvas. Although this method saved time laying the figure in, he still would have needed to work out of doors to achieve the effects of color and light he sought. His Giverny sketchbooks seem to confirm this methodology as he carefully noted the paintings he worked on in morning light marked “AM” and afternoon light listed as “PM.”
In Robinson’s figurative works of the late 1880s, the artist’s aim wasn’t to paint the type of attractive peasant genre works that were popular at the French Salon. Nor were his subjects the heroic rural archetypes as painted by Jules Bastien-Lapage and his followers. Instead, Robinson was able to explore the formal qualities of pattern, light and color through his depictions of his French subjects at work or leisure. While the figures of his models like the Givernois Josephine Trognon were handled with some solidity, Robinson began to use the loose, dappled brushwork and broken color of Impressionism. While his brushwork changed about the time he moved to Giverny, he continued to work in a narrow tonal range – a limited palette – with most of his figurative works. While there is no doubt that Robinson was influenced by Impressionism and will always be associated with the American evolution of the movement, he preferred to paint on gray days and never adopted the intense high-key palette of classic French Impressionism. It is impossible to know how Robinson developed his new style, whether it was based on influences he found after he came to Giverny or whether the move simply gave him the confidence to take a fresh look at his art. Clearly, artists began to come to Giverny in order to experiment with Impressionism.
Most of Robinson’s figurative works were of a modest size. Perhaps because of his poor constitution he found large paintings exhausting and so there are few grand, major works in his artistic oeuvre. Perhaps his most ambitious work was La Vachere, a large 86” x 59” canvas of a girl sewing with a large cow looking out at the viewer. The model was Robinson’s love Marie, who probably traveled from Paris to pose for it. Now in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, it was done with the annual salon in mind and he exhibited it there in the spring of 1889. He also used Marie in his panoramic “Val D’Arconville” painting of 1888, The Layette, another sewing scene of 1892 and one of his last major Giverny works titled “La Debacle” after the famous Emile Zola novel that Robinson read that last summer in Europe. In 1892, “In the Sun” a modest but well painted scene of a girl laying on her back in the sun was awarded the Shaw Prize at the Society of American Artists Exhibtion.
No essay on the life of Theodore Robinson and the community of expatriate artists that settled in Giverny is complete without a discussion of the foreign painters relationship with the master, Claude Monet, who was already a world famous painter. In reality was that there was no relationship between the vast majority of painters who came to Giverny and Claude Monet as he did not want to be anyone’s teacher or the sun in the artistic firmament that young acolytes orbited around. Monet kept to himself, working in the gardens on his walled estate, painting in his studio or tucking his easel under his arm and painting in the fields where no one had the temerity to impose on him when he was working. On rare occasions he honored someone he came to like or respect by inviting them to paint with him. John Singer Sargent painted “en plein-air” with Monet on a number of occasions and the young American John Leslie Breck was invited to paint in the fields and in the garden with Monet, but the friendship seemed to fray when the young American pursued Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche Hoschede.
Only a few of the foreign residents of Giverny actually became friends with Monet, the most prominent of them being Theodore Robinson, Lilla Cabot Perry and her husband, Thomas Sargeant Perry. The Perrys were a fascinating, influential and accomplished family who spent twenty seasons living next door to Monet. Lilla Cabot Perry was a well-educated, generous woman and a talented artist who came to painting well after she had established herself in life, but she pursued his artistic career with brio. The Perrys became part of the life of the village and from their arrival in 1889 they developed a warm relationship with Monet and his family as well as with Robinson. No one knows how Robinson’s friendship with Monet began, but the fact that he suffered from a debilitating illness and was a decade older than most of the other painters who came to Giverny in the early years, would have given him a gravitas the others artists could not yet have. He had also lived in France for years, understood the local customs and could converse in French. Robinson was also a highly cultivated and thoughtful conversationalist. Additionally, because of his modest, reticent nature, he would have been loath to ever impose or place demands on Monet that may have made the French painter uneasy. The result was a friendship where Monet showed the American his latest work and gave the younger artist gentle critiques of his paintings. Monet wasn’t Robinson’s teacher but an important mentor whose opinion Robinson valued above all others. The American artist visited Monet frequently and was invited to family gatherings including the intimate marriage cermony of Claude Monet and his companion Alice Hoshede in 1892, after the passing of her estranged husband allowed the formalization of their long relationship. He then participated in the wedding of his friend, the American painter Theodore Butler to Monet’s stepdaugher Suzanne Hoschede, which Robinson immortalized with the famous painting “The Wedding March.”
Theodore Robinson painted the landscape of the area around Giverny from the first months he lived in the village until his departure in 1892. From the beginning he was drawn to both panoramic and intimate scenes. For the bird’s eye view’s that Robinson favored, looking down on the landscape, he climbed up the hill behind Giverny and painted the village on gray days in muted tones with the colors fading as the landscape disappeared into the horizon. He also did small views of the houses, streets and fields surrounding the town, but he instinctively steered clear of anything that would appear too precious. Robinson’s last major works were a series of three serial views of the Valley of the Seine, which he struggled with for many weeks, confiding his doubts to his diary. These paintings, which won Monet’s approval, are some of Robinson’s most Impressionistic works.
In the fall of 1892 as Theodore Robinson prepared to leave France for the last time, he seemed to crowd a lot of visits, meetings and meals into his schedule. While he had been spending each winter in New York and the rest of the year in Europe, this return home seemed to have an air of finality about it. Robinson lunched with Will Low in Paris at the end of October, struggled for weeks to finish the paintings he was working on, met Marie for the last time in Paris at the end of November and spent one of his last evenings in France with Monet and his family before sailing on from Le Harve on December 2nd with a large assortment of his French works.
New York and New England
For the last several years he had been in Europe, Robinson had maintained a modest studio on 14th Steet in South Manhattan. Arriving back in New York on December 12th, he settled into the faster pace of life in the city, attending the Society of American Artists Exhibition a few days after his return. Robinson then took the train north to spend Christmas with his good friend John Twachtman (1853-1902) and his family in Connecticut. In the spring of 1893 he was honored to have several of his paintings exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair – “The World’s Columbian Exposition” – and he traveled to Chicago to attend the previews. He spent the spring painting with Twachtman and Henry Fitch Taylor.
Although Robinson loathed teaching, in order to help pay the bills he agreed to teach a summer painting class for the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. This took him to upstate New York, where he and the students stayed at Napanoch, a town in the Shawangunk Mountains near the Delaware and Hudson canal. Robinson used the class as an opportunity to paint in the countryside and in spite of terrible bouts of asthma, the summer of 1893 was a productive one. Robinson did a series of sketches of daily life along the waterway and painted landscapes of the countryside under differing conditions as Monet had often worked. As usual, he avoided the picturesque views that would have attracted most artists. Prominent among the finished works are “Evening on the Towpath,” “Port Ben, Delaware and Hudson Canal” and “White Bridge on the Canal” which was done in the fall as the colors had began to change. Robinson still needed to be careful with his finances but his French paintings were beginning to sell and by the end of the year he had earned several thousand dollars.
Robinson spent the winter and early spring of 1894 in New York and as the weather warmed he went north to paint with his friend Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) in Connecticut and in June worked in the art colony of Cos Cob with Henry Fitch Taylor. These Cos Cob paintings are now among his most famous works. The later summer was again spent teaching, this time in the less interesting location of Princeton, New Jersey and he didn’t have much to show for his efforts. Robinson returned to Cos Cob in late summer, a location that he found inspiring. Fortunately Will Low and his wife had settled in New Jersey and they spent some pleasant days together. However, sales were now slow and, always his worst critic, he seemed to talk himself into a black mood.
In December of 1894 Robinson began teaching two days a week at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The winter months were always hard on him and with all the travel to Philadelphia and back his asthma returned with a vengeance. In desperation he sought out a woman doctor who preached a “mind cure” and for a few months he did feel better, but it was not a productive year. In the fall William Macbeth offered Robinson a solo exhibition at his gallery, one of the few who promoted the work of American artists. The show was hung at the end of January, 1895 and opened a few days later – thirty-three paintings, twenty done in the United States and the rest from France. The more perceptive critics realized that Robinson was not an Impressionist in the French manner but a realist painter who adopted some Impressionist techniques to record the truth of what he saw and felt. Despite the critic’s praise only one painting sold. However, after the exhibition closed, the St. Louis Museum organized a traveling show that went to Atlanta, St. Louis, Ft. Wayne and Cincinnati.
Robinson was a man of great and deep friendships and once he was back in America he was able to spend more time with Julian Weir and John Twachtman who he had kept close to through during his French years through the frequent exchange of letters. They had become devotees of Japanese Woodblock Prints and in his last months Robinson also began to collect them and think about how they could influence his work. Sundays he made a custom of joining the Weirs at their New York apartment for dinner. He spent a great deal of time with August Jaccaci (1857-1930), the art editor of Scribners, who was always trying to encourage him.
In his last years Robinson also grew closer to his cousin Agnes Cheney who lived in New York City. She helped him to organize a private summer class in their native Vermont during that last summer of 1895. He rented a house in Townsend for the summer where he dedicated himself to painting some real American landscapes. Robinson grew frustrated with some of the larger paintings he attempted in Vermont and only succeeded with smaller, less ambitious paintings where he could achieve the unity that he sought. The teaching was less onerous than it had been in the past and summer was made much more pleasant by the efficient Mrs. Cheney who made the season a happy and financially fruitful one. Robinson stayed until the fall weather made painting outside impossible, finally leaving Vermont on November 26th in a snow-storm.
Robinson’s winters were usually spent puttering around the studio and that last winter he worked on some illustrations, spent Christmas with the Jaccacis and then in the New York he began an article on Camille Corot (1796-1895) that art editor John C. Van Dyck commissioned for a book titled “French Masters” that would also feature an article he wrote on Monet for Century Magazine. Once again he struggled with his asthma, which had been worse in the last few years. Robinson wrote movingly in his diary about the plight of Wyatt Eaton, one of Millet’s American followers who was ill and penniless in Montreal. Even though money was always tight, he sent $10 with a letter to Eaton.
Robinson spent March working on his article on Corot and visiting the many exhibitions that were in New York that winter. Among his trips was a March 21st visit to view Monet’s Cathedrals – some of the same works that he had been shown in Giverny by the Impressionist master himself. Robinson recorded that he found the Monets “superb – the courageous way they are done, no slighting or slurring of any parts – and several are dreams of beauty.” On March 28th he visited the Society of American Artists Exhibition and got together later that day with his cousin Agnes Cheney who had a tea for the students from the Vermont painting trip the previous summer. Two days later Robinson was struck down by a terrible asthma attack and went to his cousin’s tiny apartment to be nursed. Unfortunately, his constitution, weakened by a life-long illness, was not up to another recovery and he died on April 2nd with his cousin and his doctor, Charles Kelsey attending him.
Theodore Robinson’s friend Will Low took care of raising funds and making arrangements for his funeral, which was held on April 4, 1892 at the Society of American Artists rooms in the Fine Arts Building in New York. His body was shipped home to Evansville, Wisconsin, where a second funeral was held at the Methodist Church with an internment following at the Maple Hill Cemetery where he rests today under a tombstone that states simply “Theodore Robinson, Impressionistic Painter, 1852-1896.
Although he was not destined to live a long life or to have children to carry on his name, Theodore Robinson’s place in art history is secure. He was an important figure in the marriage of French Impressionism and American painting. While his works always retained the solid sense of form and strong draftsmanship that Americans viewers tend to favor, in his later work he combined these elements with Impressionistic brushwork and an emphasis on naturalistic light and color. Like the man himself, Robinson’s work was modest, straightforward and honest. He helped develop the broad style of painting that we now call American Impressionism.