Theodore Robinson: Pioneer of American Impressionism
The following essay was written in March 2000 by D. Scott Atkinson for the catalogue of the Theodore Robinson exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from April 15 through June 15, 2000.
During the last decade of his life Theodore Robinson was arguably the most knowledgeable American artist advancing the cause of Impressionism. Moreover, he may well have been the first American painter to grasp its principles and forge them into his own unique style. Robinson spent many years in France and was one of the few Americans to have direct contact with the most highly acclaimed innovator and proponent of French Impressionism, Claude Monet. Yet a close comparison of Robinson's paintings with those by Monet -- or with any of the leading French Impressionists -- reveals that they are in no way slavish imitations. Robinson recast Monet's style in his own terms and, in doing so, established Impressionism in an American vein. To understand the differences between the two requires an understanding of Robinson and his development as a painter, who came to artistic fruition during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
I: The Early Years
Robinson was not helpful in providing biographical information of his early years. However, the painter Birge Harrison -- who met Robinson when they were both art students and who watched him mature as a painter on both sides of the Atlantic -- remembers Robinson in an article written in December 1916: "The one who always stands out most vividly in my own mind ...[is] Theodore Robinson, who is now taking his place beside Inness, Wyant, and Winslow Homer as one of our American old masters." [Endnote 1] Compared to George Inness, Alexander Wyant, and certainly Homer, Robinson is relatively unknown, but this statement substantiates the significant role that Robinson played in the development of American art.
In the same article Harrison gives an eyewitness account of Robinson's hesitancy at coming forward with biographical information: "[He] ... put an end to a rather tiresome rainy-day discussion on the subject of genealogy, during which we had been treated to more or less colorful accounts of the distinguished lineage of most of those present." Robinson was finally asked, "Who were your noble ancestors anyway?" With a subdued twinkle Robinson replied: "Well, if you really wish to know, I will tell you. My father was a farmer, and my grandparents were both very respectable and deserving domestic servants. I have never carried my investigation any further up the family tree." [Endnote 2] Although his terse reply provides no accurate information about himself, the anecdote points to the absence of pretense in Robinson's character which made him an agreeable friend.
Despite his reticence, the essential facts of Robinson's biography are known.[Endnote 3] He was born Theodore Pierson Robinson, the third of six children, on 3 June 1852. His parents were Elijah and Ellen Brown Robinson, both native New Englanders from Jamaica, Vermont, who were married in the nearby town of Newfane in 1844. Elijah Robinson had worked on the family farm in Jamaica before studying for the ministry. He entered the Methodist-Episcopal Conference in 1843. Of Robinson's five siblings, both sisters and one brother died in childhood. Two brothers, Hamline and John, survived him. Illness caused Elijah Robinson to leave the ministry and open a clothing store; but, contrary to Theodore's account, there is no evidence that after leaving Vermont the senior Robinson would ever again work as a farmer.
The family moved twice in Robinson's lifetime, first to Barry, Illinois, in 1855. The following year they moved again, this time to Evansville, a small town in southern Wisconsin. At Evansville, Robinson entered the seminary where he was awarded prizes for his penmanship. This was not surprising given the high quality of the portrait sketches he drew in his church hymnal of the Methodist congregation. In 1869, with the encouragement and support of his mother, Robinson enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which later became known as the Art Institute. Not long after his arrival in Chicago, Robinson was stricken with a serious bout of asthma -- a chronic condition that he had suffered with since childhood. The problem was so severe that he cut short his Chicago studies and retreated to the drier climate of Denver in order to recuperate. Never physically robust, Robinson was plagued by the debilitating effects of asthma for the rest of his life.
Little is known of Robinson's activities over the next few years. He may have stayed as long as a year in Denver before returning to Evansville. Once home, he turned his skill as a draftsman to profitable use by making crayon portraits, often enlarged from photographs, saving the money he raised for future art training. This would come in 1874 when Robinson moved to New York in order to attend one of the oldest art schools in the country, the National Academy of Design.
For the next two years Robinson immersed himself in the life of an art student. He studied under Lemuel Everett Wilmarth and filled sketchbooks with studies made in Central Park. It was a period when the older members of the Academy -- landscape painters for the most part -- were being challenged by the students who were increasingly more interested in figural painting. Moreover, the students were dissatisfied with the limited exhibition opportunities that the Academy made available to them. This dissatisfaction lead Wilmarth in 1875 to form, with a group of students including Robinson, the Art Students League. The alternative allowed them greater control over their curriculum and access to exhibition space. Notwithstanding his being one of the founders of the Art Students League, Robinson remained actively enrolled in the Academy during his two years in New York, even winning a gold medal for figure drawing.
Most American art students during the second half of the nineteenth century viewed their study in New York as a preliminary to training abroad. In 1876 this meant a choice between Munich or Paris, the two European cities where art academies and ateliers were available. This decision was critical because it molded the type of painter an artist would become. For Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase, painters from the Midwest who would rise to national prominence in the 1880s, the choice was Munich where emphasis was placed on facilely brushed history and genre paintings. Another painter of that generation, the Philadelphian Thomas Eakins, was more interested in the study of anatomy, drawing from sculpture or the model, following the rigorous training available in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Robinson established his interest in the figure early, first with his portrait drawing, then with his involvement with the founding of the Art Students League. Although his landscapes received much deserved acclaim, he never abandoned his allegiance to the human form. Quite naturally then, Robinson gravitated to Paris where, in 1876, he entered the private atelier of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, at 81 Boulevard Montparnasse. At thirty-six years old, Carolus-Duran was a popular portrait painter whose color and brushwork attracted sitters from both continents. His reputation in the United States was due largely to his portrait of Mrs. William B. Astor, who was among the leaders of New York society. When he arrived at Carolus-Duran's atelier Robinson found himself in the company of such talented compatriots as John Singer Sargent, Carroll Beckwith, Birge Harrison, and Will Hicok Low. Reminiscing about Robinson's arrival at the atelier Low recalled: "Among the new arrivals one year was Theodore Robinson, who, timidly, with due respect for my two years experience in Paris student life, sought my acquaintance... Frail, with a husky, asthmatic voice and a laugh that shook his meager sides and yet hardly made itself heard, yet blessed with as keen a sense of humor as anyone I have ever known, Robinson was received at once into our little circle. At first he seemed almost negative, so quietly he took his place among us, but once the shell of diffidence was pierced few of the men had thought as much or as independently..."[Endnote 4]
Robinson did not stay long in Carolus-Duran's atelier and there are indications that their student-teacher relationship was not particularly compatible; perhaps Duran's style was overly involved with painterly effects. He moved then to study with Jean-Léon Gérôme who stressed drawing the human form above all else. "No pupil left the studio for his life work without learning to draw the human figure accurately" wrote George de Forest Brush, another of Gérôme's American students.[Endnote 5]
Gérôme's was the most popular atelier and the one attended by the best American students. He was a portrait and history painter who specialized in "Orientalist" subjects so highly finished they were nearly photographic in their realism. He achieved this through his dedication to drawings often augmented with photographs -- a practice that Robinson would adopt, with happy results, the following decade.
II. The Life of the Artist
Confirmation of Robinson's academic training came in 1877 with the acceptance of his painting, Portrait of Mimi, at that year's annual salon in Paris. The painting was a bust-length portrait of a young woman -- probably a model -- gazing at the viewer from the small canvas. Resembling the work of both Carlous-Duran and Gérôme at that time, it is a conservative but carefully considered portrait reflecting Robinson's skill as a draftsman and his ability to create volume from light and dark. So delighted was Robinson at the inclusion of his painting in the salon that he wrote to his mother: "My picture is accepted and I tremble with joy." [Endnote 6]
The salon's acceptance of Portrait of Mimi that spring marked the end of the Academy's exclusive hold on Robinson's artistic development. As a respite from his studies he went to the country village of Grèz, on the River Loing in the forest of Barbizon near Fontainebleau, in order to paint landscapes with a group of American artists, including Will Low, Walter Launt Palmer, Birge Harrison, and Willard Metcalf. Grèz was among the more popular of the French artist colonies of the late 1870s and early 80s -- locations where artists with similar interests would congregate to paint and share ideas during the summer months. The Scottish painter, John Lavery, who stayed in Grèz in the early 1880s described the qualities of`the village that made it attractive to artists. It was "a pleasant place surrounded by large fields of white and yellow water lilies and poplars and willows. There was also the much-painted bridge... a ruined castle and an ancient church... [and] Madame Chevillon's Inn with its long garden down to the water's edge where guests could sit in bathing dress to eat after a swim or a sail in a skiff."[Endnote 7]
Grèz was associated with the practice of painting outside the studio, or en plein air. This practice was not new to Robinson and his cohorts. Artists began setting up their easels in the forest of Barbizon around the middle of the nineteenth century, in order to paint directly from nature. Their purpose was to put down on canvas what they saw before them in nature as viewed under the prevailing atmospheric conditions. The results were often dark, brooding paintings called "tonalist" for their limited range of subtle tonal gradations -- as in the paintings of Jean François Millet -- or, as in the case of Robinson's favorite, Camille Corot, evenly illuminated by a shimmering, silver light. This method flew directly in the face of traditional academic practice, which was to paint the landscape in the studio from preparatory drawings made from nature. American artists George Inncss and William Morris Hunt had painted there in the 1850s and the tonalist paintings that they, and others, produced were much sought after by American collectors during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The only existing description of Robinson was drawn from Birge Harrison's memory of him during the summer at Grèz: "Robinson was far from handsome in the classic sense. An enormous head, with goggle-eyes and a whopper-jaw, was balanced on a frail body by means of a neck of extreme tenuity; and stooping shoulders, with a long, slouching gait, did not add anything of grace or of beauty to his general appearance." It was not Robinson's physical prowess that interested Harrison, but his strength of character. "[Out] of those goggle-eyes shone the courage of a Bayard, and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor."[Endnote 8]
Another Scotsman, already at Grèz the summer Robinson and his countrymen arrived, was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. He and Robinson formed a bond documented fondly by Harrison's account: "Robinson, like Stevenson, was a semi-invalid, a great sufferer from asthma, which never gave him a moment's respite; but, like Stevenson again, he never allowed his weakness to interfere in any with the main business of life or to intrude itself upon others. . . Stevenson and he at once became bosom friends and companions, for they were hewn out of the same block. . . It has always been a source of regret to me that no one of us painter-men ever thought of making a double portrait of the pair. . .for, if successful, it would have been a psychological document of surpassing interest. It would have been a failure indeed did it not demonstrate the profound fact that mere physical ugliness is no bar to the expression of spiritual beauty in the human countenance; for the almost Gothic mask of Robinson's features could and did radiate sweetness and light as readily as the nearly classic beauty of Stevenson's own profile."[Endnote 9] Coincidentally, Robinson and Stevenson, who were born two years apart, would both die before the end of the century at age forty-four from their common respiratory ailment.
That summer in Grèz was Robinson's introduction to painting the more subjective responses to nature than were allowed by the Ecole. It was his initiation to plein air painting which, in 1877, was the avant-garde. Although he returned that fall to Gérôme's atelier, the seeds of Robinson's future growth had been planted.
The winter of 1877-78 was particularly hard on Robinson. The cold, damp weather and spartan living conditions of an art student aggravated his asthma. In an uncharacteristic lament Robinson wrote to his mother: "When I've taken cold and cough all night my work is greatly interfered with not to mention the inconvenience it causes."[Endnote 10] For the remainder of that term he maintained his routine of attending class and making sketches at the Louvre of sculpture and paintings by such academicians as Germain Pilon, Jusepe de Ribera, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Then, in 1878, Robinson sent a painting to the first exhibition of the recently formed Society of American Artists which, as the Art Students League, had been organized in reaction to the Academy's lack of interest in the development of its younger members. This was particularly important to those American artists who were returning home after studying in Europe to find limited opportunities to show their work. The Society was a forum that suited Robinson and he became a regular contributor to their annual exhibitions.
His activities during the summer of 1878 are not well documented. An entry in his diary places Robinson in the company of a group of students who, once again, were making their way south of Paris to the forest of Barbizon. The event of that season was Robinson's late summer or fall excursion to Venice where he apparently remained for at least a year. This assumption is based on the fact that, while in Vcnice, Robinson met the expatriate American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler who arrived in September of 1879 for the purpose of producing a commissioned suite of etchings. Little is known of Robinson's activities during the months that he spent in Venice; there are no diary entries or extant letters from which to draw information. All that remains as physical evidence are two paintings of Venetian subjects, one which is dated 1878, and another smaller panel bearing a label inscribed, "Souvenir de Venise to Robinson from James McNeill Whistler," and signed with the painter's butterfly colophon. Perhaps less tangible but more lasting was Whistler's influence on Robinson's future artistic production. The atmospheric effects pervasive in Whistler's paintings and prints by the late 1870s were in keeping with Robinson's own interest in painting outside the studio. Another influence was the alternative compositional arrangements found in Japanese prints, so identified with Whistler and evident in Robinson's paintings of the following decades."[Endnote 11]
Late in 1879 Robinson left Venice and returned to New York, where he took a studio at 188 Broadway. His student days were now behind him and the difficulty of making a living as a painter was becoming all too evident. Financial constraints forced him to close his studio early in 1880 and return to Evansville, Wisconsin, and to the support of his family. He kept painting during these months, turning out a number of Wisconsin scenes. More interesting was how Robinson tested illustration as a way of earning some money. The result was a broadly brushed and darkly colored painting titled Suzette for the periodical, Harper's Young People. That Robinson did not find his professional circumstances entirely satisfactory was made clear in his comment "Evansville, Wisconsin [is] not Athens -- or Paris," which was included in a letter that he wrote to his old friend Will Low" [Endnote 12] Low facilitated Robinson's return to New York in late 1880 or early 1881, by actively recruiting him for a teaching job at Ms. Sylvanevus Reed's School of Art. This job paid little, but Robinson -- during his student days -- had become accustomed to living frugally.
His fortunes began to change in the spring of 1881 when, on the 7th of May, he was elected to the Society of American Artists. Robinson also maintained contact with his alma mater the National Academy of Design, in whose exhibitions his work had been consistently included since 1881. This is noteworthy for Robinson. From this time until his death, he maintained his balance on the narrow edge separating the "conservative" from the "progressive" camps. That same month Robinson, with Low, joined the growing ranks of American artists decorating the numerous public buildings being constructed in New York and Boston, as well as the grand homes commissioned by the industrial robber barons who were amassing great fortunes at the time.
The most important artist designing these decorative campaigns was John LaFarge whose murals for Boston's Trinity Church, executed between 1876-78, had been a great critical success. Robinson and Low became part of a team of artist-decorators working under LaFarge on the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue. Later that year the pair went up the Hudson River to Tarrytown, New York, where they worked decorating another Vanderbilt house.
May 1881 was also a sad month for Robinson. His mother died on the 24th. Her death was the occasion for Robinson's return to Evansville in order to be with his family. He and his father also made a trip to Vermont to visit the old family home. Robinson found rural New England "lovely...desolate. ..almost savage," while the hospitality of his relatives left something to be desired: "[We] are devoured by flies -- Uncle John wouldn't have netting ... 'didn't want his air strained'."[Endnote 13]
Robinson returned to New York in August and remained in LaFarge's employ through December. In 1882 he seems to have found decorating work on his own in New York, Boston, and quite possibly a church in Bangor, Maine. He also spent some portion of that summer painting on the Island of Nantucket with a group of artists that included Abbott H. Thayer. By January 1883 Robinson was working once again for another of the period's major artist-decorators, Prentice Treadwell of Boston. This association kept Robinson busy throughout the year, with the summer being consumed by work on tile New York Metropolitan Opera House which opened its first season that fall.
As Robinson demonstrated, the opportunities available to artists working in New York and Boston during the early 1880s were unprecedented. Large scale decorative projects appeared so plentiful that he claimed many "persuaded themselves for a year or so that the days of the Italian Renaissance were revived on Manhattan Island."[Endnote 14]
His years of study under Gérôme had thoroughly prepared Robinson to produce compositional arrangements consisting primarily of figures, elaborate draperies, intertwining foliage motifs, and the occasional landscape clement. Unfortunately, the hand of the assistant was subordinate to the vision of the principal designer and there is no way of ascertaining what portion of the surviving decorations were done by Robinson. This is especially troubling when considering that his frail energies were so totally consumed by the anonymous decorative work that he had little time for his own art. Consequently, there are few paintings by Robinson from the early 1880s: that reveal his artistic development at the time.
One exception is is Flower of Memory, of 1881, Robinson's contribution to the pensive and sentimental female figure so popular in Victorian America at the end of the nineteenth century. In this painting the solitary figure stands alone in a garden setting reminiscent of paintings by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, which were produced around the same time. The figure is beautifully drawn and subtlety modeled, creating the illusion of solid form over which her empire dress convincingly falls. This picture summarizes Robinson's years of training and is representative of the type of figures that he was painting for LaFarge and Treadwell."[Endnote 15]
Robinson felt more connected to a larger American tradition than Flower of Memory alone could express. This was the realist tradition of Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer -- artists who had, by 1881, not only explored extensively the theme of the lone female figure, but also monumental agrarian subjects depicting returning war veterans cutting hay and townspeople harvesting cranberries. The woman in Haying of 1882, who accepts a ladle of water from a man as she sits atop a horse-drawn reaper, is Robinson's response to the native realists' tradition. The painting's wide, narrow format, which emphasizes the horizon line, somber tonality, and plein air sky, are very similar qualities to those found in Robinson's The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket. Robinson would have been aware of this picture because it received great acclaim when shown at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in Spring 1880, shortly after his return from France.
III: Impressionist Influences
It was during these same years that French Impressionist paintings were beginning to appear in New York and Boston. In September 1883, while Robinson was still working for Treadwell, the important Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel organized the "Foreign Exhibition" in Boston, which included paintings by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. In December, the "Pedestal Loan Fund Exhibition" -- organized to raise money for the installation of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor -- included three Manet paintings and one Degas. There is no record of Robinson's response to these paintings, or even if he saw the exhibitions. It points out, however, that French Impressionism was beginning to make inroads in the United States just as Robinson was preparing to return to France.
The money he had saved after three years as a decorative painter allowed Robinson to sail for France in the spring of 1884. Although the ensuing eight years were interrupted by visits to New York, essentially France had become his home. His activities during the five years that he was abroad are not well documented, but there is evidence that he worked in Paris and Grèz and traveled to Dieppe and Holland, absorbing artistic influences wherever he went. When Will Low and his wife returned to France in 1886, they found Robinson waiting for them at the Gare St. Lazare in Paris, and for a year or more he became a member of the household that they had established at 12 Rue Vernier in Neuilly.
The paintings that Robinson produced during the mid-1880s lacked a predominate influence and remained unresolved. Artistically he was being pushed and pulled in different directions, often by contradictory sources. Some of his paintings retained the decorative sentiment of Flower of Memory and are visible in the mural painting that he was involved with before leaving New York. Others were plein air landscapes inspired by his previous Barbizon experience, while a third group combined the Barbizon palette with an interest in the peasant genre pictures by the seventeenth century Dutch old master painters, who were a powerful influence on many nineteenth century European and American painters.
An example of the latter is Cobbler of Old Paris, 1885. The Dutch sources for this picture are seen in the limited tonal range of somber colors and the compositional arrangement of a shop interior. Interest in this scene is generated by the complex still life of objects strewn over the cobbler's workbench and the horizontal racks of shoes filling the wall. The woman who engages the cobbler through the large open window provides the painting with a focal point. The prosaic nature of this picture, and many like it, appealed to Victorians who were charmed and comforted by its portrayal of a non-threatening event from everyday life. As part of his search for an artistic direction that could reconcile the various influences surrounding him, Robinson painted a number of these genre scenes during the mid-1880s.
To further complicate our understanding of Robinson's artistic sources, there was yet another influence that became increasingly evident in his work after 1880. This was the painting of the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose rise in the French art world would have been impossible for Robinson to ignore. By the end of the 1870s Bastien was the most renowned French painter working in a style called Naturalism, characterized by unsentimental but meticulously rendered images of rural peasants or urban laborers frozen in the moment like a candid snapshot. His paintings were considered fresh and modern and their appearance at the official salon always garnered attention and positive critical response. Only four years Robinson's senior, Bastien, died of stomach cancer in December 1884, just months after the American had arrived in Paris. Death transformed his celebrity into adoration, and the 1885 retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris was a sensation.. [Endnote 16]
It seems safe to speculate that Robinson would have found the reliance of Bastien's naturalist aesthetic on solid figure drawing and plein air lighting effects appealing because it "represented a new direction in contemporary painting that was bound neither by academicism nor Impressionism, though it combined elements of both."[Endnote 17] Bastien-Lepage, in many ways, had found a successful synthesis of influences on which he could establish a unique style of his own. Through his exploration of the various artistic currents of his day, Robinson was also in search of a balance of influences that would form his own aesthetic vision. Bastien's influence is already apparent in the best paintings Robinson produced during the busy years before he returned to Europe. The Girl with the Dog, c. 1880 is a good example.[Endnote 18] The young figure sits absorbed in her own thoughts in a landscape composed of tonal patches of color and illuminated by the silver-gray light of Corot. However, Robinson's painting retained enough of the sentimental sweetness to insure its success in an American market.
Robinson returned to the subject of a figure with a dog in a picture be painted in France. It is among his earliest treatments of the French female peasant that he was to examine during this time. Never satisfied with any single influence, Young Girl with Dog, 1886, reveals to what degree Robinson had begun to meld the Naturalism of Bastien with the Realism of his countrymen. The painting retains Bastien's method of depicting an un-idealized figure viewed candidly in a landscape, while the sweetness of the previous picture has matured into a pensive melancholy. There is an American source of inspiration that would have been familiar to Robinson, as well. The small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is reminiscent of a series of watercolors produced by Homer in the summer of 1878 at Houghton Farm, in upstate New York. Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer's watercolors, but is also reputed to have purchased one in 1894.[Endnote 19]
IV: Robinson in Giverny
The unassuming village of Giverny occupies a spot at the base of a hill across the Seine River Valley from the town of Vernon. The River Epte, a small tributary of the Seine, runs along the edge of the village at the foot of the hill forming the boundary between two regions: the Ile de France and Normandy. Giverny is located just inside the latter. It is much today as it was in the nineteenth century -- a farming village composed primarily of homes, a few shops, and a Norman church. Claude Monet settled in Giverny in 1883 with his second wife, Alice Hoschedé, and their combined eight children from previous marriages. Monet was forty-three years old at the time and was just beginning to enjoy a successful career. He was at the exact middle of his life. He would remain in Giverny for the next forty-three years, producing the greatest paintings of his long career.
The "discovery" of Giverny by American artists is a story interwoven with fact and legend. There is a convincing argument that places John Singer Sargent in Giverny in 1885, based on his painting Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Wood, which features Monet working on a canvas he produced in 1885. [Endnote 20] Willard Metcalf and Theodore Wendel were in Giverny as early as 1886 and left dated paintings as evidence to substantiate this claim. There are also paintings by Metcalf produced in the village the following summer, 1887.[Endnote 21] The earliest mention of Robinson's presence in the village comes from the Monet-Hoschedé family. In this account Robinson was introduced to Monet in 1885 by a French painter named Deconchy, a mutual friend, who owned a house at Gasny four kilometers from Giverny.
The English painter Dawson Dawson-Watson gave the most popular account to the artist, critic, and art historian, Eliot Clark at San Antonio, Texas, in 1929. Dawson-Watson recalls his student days in Paris and his meeting the American painter John Leslie Breck in 1888, who told him "of the why and wherefore" of the discovery of Giverny the summer before. Breck explained: "In the spring of '87 [he and] Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Blair-Bruce, Theo Wendel, and a chap named Taylor whose Christian name I cannot recall, were talking over some place to go for the summer."[Endnote 22] All of the usual places, Pont Aven, Etretat, Ecoigu, and Grèz, were rejected because their interest was in finding a new location to paint. After consulting the destination board at the Gare St. Lazare, they agreed that Pont del'Arche was appealing, so they decided to visit the town and see if it was as picturesque as its name.
The train to Pont del'Arche followed the Seine into Normandy and required a change at Vernon. As they approached Vernon, Mctcalf pointed out a little village of white houses and a Norman church at the base of the hill on the opposite bank of the river and commented on its loveliness. At Vernon they were told the village was Giverny. Once aboard the new train they were treated to a second view of Giverny when they crossed the Seine and were doubling back. The painters agreed unanimously that if Pont del'Arche was not to their liking they would return to Giverny the following morning, which was exactly what they did.[Endnote 23] This account is suspect for it is known that both Metcalf and Wendel had been in the village the preceding year. This anecdote provides a chronicle of the founding of the colony by a group, as opposed to visits to Giverny by individual artists.
Without a place to stay in a village that had no accommodations, the group found their way to Café Baudy. The proprietors Lucien and Angelina Baudy graciously made arrangements for the young painters to board with residents of the village.Breck was so keen on Giverny that he persuaded the Baudys to build an addition in their courtyard that would house painters in future years. Eventually, with the further addition of painters' studios and a tennis court across the road, the Café Baudy was transformed into the Hôtel Baudy. The Baudys were friendly to all who came and their guest book, which they kept from 1888 onwards, read as a veritable "Who's Who" of artists, both European and American. Their hotel was not only where many painters lived, but the café remained the principal place to take meals and socialize as well. If it had not been for the Baudys' active participation, Giverny would probably not have become an artist colony.
Robinson, however, was in opposition to these developments. Turning once again to Dawson-Watson's account: "Breck conceived the idea of making an art colony of it [Giverny]. Theo Robinson strenuously objected saying they had found a lovely spot and should keep it to themselves. Breck's reply was everyone had been so damn nice, he wanted them to reap some real financial benefit. While all of this was gradually maturing, Breck had induced Monsieur Baudy to build six rooms in the courtyard in back of the Café which the fellows occupied. He also built a studio for Metcalf. Then Breck went to Paris and I happened to be the first chap he met. That was in April of '88. I went there for two weeks as a try and stayed there five years."[Endnote 24]
Robinson's objections to transforming Giverny into a popular artist colony may have been due to his own social reticence; he did not shun company, but was perfectly content to be alone. He may have been aware of the wishes of Giverny's most famous resident, Claude Monet, who presumably would not be happy with the influx of visiting painters. Monet's name is conspicuously absent from Dawson-Watson's account of finding the village or as any reason to go there in the first place. He claims that none of them knew of Monet's presence in Giverny:. This seems difficult to believe. By the late 1880s Monet was an "art celebrity" whose involvement with Impressionism and its advancement was well known. There is no record as to how Robinson was introduced to Monet, but of all the American painters who were to work in Giverny he was among the very few on friendly terms with the French master. William Gerdts, the authority on American Impressionism suggests that Robinson, being ten years older than his fellow painters, may have seemed more agreeable to Monet.[Endnote 25] Nonetheless, the two formed a deep friendship -- not as student-mentor, as is often reported -- but as fellow painters who shared a common bond. With mutual admiration and respect, they continued to correspond after Robinson left Giverny and returned to America.
The village soon caught on. The first wave of painters were serious students -- or, as in the case of Robinson -- mature artists in search of a place other than Barbizon to paint outdoors. But with each passing year serious artists became outnumbered by novice painters, oftentimes young women who viewed a summer at an artists colony part of the process of acquiring refinement through an understanding of fine art. The yearly influx of student-artists became so daunting that in 1897 Monet lamented to a reporter: "When I first came to Giverny I was quite alone, the little village was unspoiled. Now, so many artists, students, flock here, I have often thought of moving away." [Endnote 26] Monet did not move away. Instead he increasingly withdrew to his compound where his garden and lily pond provided all of the subject matter necessary for his paintings.
Go to second page
Go to endnotes
Mr. Atkinson's essay is courtesy of the Owen Gallery, 19 East 75th Street, New York, New York and the author.
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.