Theodore Robinson: Pioneer of American Impressionism



This is the continuation of an essay which 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.

V: Advancement of Style


Robinson may have returned briefly to New York at the end of 1887, but he was certainly in Paris by early 1888 and in Giverny again that summer. This was the season when he would paint his first Impressionist pictures -- the most important of that season being La Vachére. This painting establishes from the beginning Robinson's dilemma in reconciling the new style with his old training. The grass and leaves relegated to the sides of the picture are color patches rendered in large brush strokes. But the female figure who stands in profile at the center of the composition, concentrating on her sewing -- and the cow whose proximity seems to crowd the figure -- are definitively modeled products of his academic training. Black is used to create shadow and volume instead of the mixture of color as prescribed by Impressionism. The overall effect is a figure-study framed in an impressionist landscape. As the eminent art historian and early Robinson biographer, John Baur concluded: "[Robinson] remained too deeply imbued with linear and representational realism to allow his forms to dissolve in a mist of broken color."[Endnote 27]

Perhaps the fact that La Vachére was sent to the Paris Salon of 1889 partially explains its conservative handling of form. That Robinson could be more experimental is visible in Autumn Sunlight painted the same year. Here the figure stands in the woods in much the same way as Young Girl with Dog, which was painted the year before. But tonalist effects of dappled light have given way to a foreground of leaves realized as a mosaic of broken brush strokes. Overall the handling is far more Impressionist than La Vachére, including the standing figure which in no way is as firmly drawn. The bundle at her feet identifies her as a faggot gatherer, a subject that retains a close affinity to the paintings of Bastien-Lepage.

Impressionism presented, for Robinson, a dilemma that he worked to attune in the pictures he painted at Giverny. He was searching for a way to reconcile years of training at the Ecole under Gérôme and the American realist tradition of Homer, to which he felt connected artistically, with the Impressionist methodology that contradicted all that he had learned. As Baur observed: "Robinson was always struggling with the irreconcilable factors of the older realism and the visual realism inherent in Impressionism."[Endnote 28] The type of paintings Robinson favored for this exploration combined genre figures with landscape; the solidly modeled figures preserved his loyalty to academic training, while the landscape provided an opportunity to explore the phenomenon of light and color prescribed by Impressionism. Robinson summarizes his inability to embrace Impressionism in what amounts to a warning to those practicing the style without restraint. "Altogether the possibilities are very great for the moderns, but they must draw without ceasing or they will 'get left', and with the brilliancy and light of real out-doors -- combine the austerity the sobriety, that has always characterized good painting."[Endnote 29]

In December of 1888 Robinson returned to New York where he would spend the winter. He took a studio on lower Fifth Avenue, but spent little time painting. He did produce a few watercolors that were shown that spring by the American Water Color Society. The inclusion of these paintings, which Robinson had produced in Giverny in tile exhibition of the Society of American Artists held in early 1889, is perhaps his most important accomplishment that winter. This was the first time his Impressionist paintings were exhibited in the United States and among the earliest examples by an American artist to be shown in this country.

In May 1889 Robinson was back in Giverny working to resolve the conflict between form and color in the paintings he produced that year. The most important painting is Winter Landscape -- a view of the village perched on its hillside in the aftermath of a rare Giverny snowstorm. The roofs are a patchwork of white while the village is encased in an atmosphere of icy purple-blue. In 1890 Winter Landscape won the Webb Prize at the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists, for which Robinson received $300. This award had been initiated in 1887 by Dr. W. Seward Webb "for the best landscape in the exhibition, painted by an American artist under forty years of age."[Endnote 30] Given the stipulation that the award was for landscape painting, it is fortunate that Robinson decided to forego the inclusion of a figure that characterized most of his Giverny production. Moreover, Winter Landscape was the first impressionist landscape awarded the prize.

The timing of the Webb Prize places Robinson in New York early in 1890 where, as the year before, he stayed until the spring before returning to Giverny. In the small sketch, or pochade, that he produced in 1890 titled Morning Fog, Giverny, his artistic ambivalence remains apparent. This representation of the village enveloped by the mist rising off the Seine rivals the atmospheric studies by Monet. It is noteworthy that cutting-edge experiments such as this one were produced in a diminutive scale and only available to a select audience, while his more conservative paintings were sent to public exhibition.

The most notable event of 1890 was the trip Robinson made that fall to Italy. Although his exact itinerary is not known, he can be placed on the island of Capri before the end of the year. The landscape, Capri and Mount Solaro, is one. of the pictures that Robinson produced on this sojourn and among the few European landscapes that he did not paint in the vicinity of Giverny. The vantage point of this picture is from a hill looking across to the village of Capri and Mount Solaro. Robinson's approach to this view is quite similar to his handling of La Vachére. Mount Solaro, and the complex architectural geometry that comprises the village, provide the composition with a firm underlying foundation on which is overlaid a loose network of Impressionist brushwork that characterizes the surrounding foliage.

Early in 1891 Robinson moved to Frascati, near Rome, where he remained through the winter. He received a letter from Monet encouraging him to return to Giverny: "[Spring] is close ... and I hope you are nor going to delay taking possession again of your little house ..."[Endnote 31] He soon departed Frascati and made his way north, stopping briefly at Antibes before arriving at Giverny in April. That summer was one of his most productive, and in many ways, his most overtly Impressionist.

It is also the summer that Robinson made extensive use of photography to establish the pose and volume of a figure instead of relying exclusively on his training as a draftsman. Professional models, common enough in Paris, were not readily available to a painter working in Giverny. The villagers, who for the most part were tied to the routines of agrarian life, had little time for the tedious hours that posing required. This made the relatively brief imposition on their time afforded by a quick camera shot desirable . Robinson, with one known exception, reserved photography for figures studies, emphasizing again the importance of maintaining that connection to his academic study. [Endnote 32]

How Robinson utilized the photographs in the production of his paintings is apparent in Two in a Boat. The photograph depicts two young women reading in the bow of a rowboat and is scored into equal squares by pencil and straight edge. The same scoring is apparent on the surface of the painting, so that the composition can be transferred logically to the picture plane, square by square. In the Orchard, featuring a woman and child walking though an orchard through a web of branches and blossoms, is one of two paintings of this subject probably painted that same summer, most likely from photographs.[Endnote 33]

The high, oblique angle and cropped composition visible in Two in a Boat and In the Orchard are characteristics not only indicative of the use of the camera, but also suggest a working knowledge of the compositional arrangements found in Japanese prints. [Endnote 34] Whistler had exposed Robinson to them as early as 1879 in Venice. He saw them again in 1881 when working for LaFarge in New York. Both artists were known for their integration of the Japanese aesthetic into their art. More readily available to Robinson in Giverny, however, were those Japanese prints in the possession of Claude Monet who was equally enthusiastic about the possibilities they made available to western artists.[Endnote 35] Robinson returned to New York in December 1891. The ensuing months were marked by both success and disappointment. In March 1892 he was given his first large exhibition, shared with the Boston Impressionist Theodore Wendel, at the Williams and Everett Gallery in Boston. As promising as this venture would suggest, few of his seventeen canvases sold and the exhibition received little attention. Ironically, it was overshadowed by another exhibition in Boston -- a large group of paintings by his friend Monet. His spirits were raised the following month when his colleagues, Twachtman and Weir, arrived at his studio with the news that he had won another cash award. This time it was the Shaw Prize established by Samuel T. Shaw for "the purchase of one figure composition painted in oil by an American artist, to be selected by Jury."[Endnote 36] The jury was none other than the Society of American Artists, who awarded Robinson the prize of $1,000 for his painting In the Sun, produced the previous summer.

On 13 May 1892, Robinson departed for what would be his last summer in Giverny. During the ensuing months he produced his greatest Giverny pictures and was, for the most part, happy. He was visited by friends, had dinners with Monet in his garden, and was treated to the rare event of having the French master critique his work.[Endnote 37] It was also the summer of his fortieth birthday, an occasion which interrupted his good spirits with a period of self-doubt and a severe bout of depression.

Robinson's painting that year was less aggressively Impressionist than the summer before. He achieved, as in years past, varied results -- some paintings were tightly drawn, others loosely brushed. The very best among these hit the mark Robinson had long been aiming for -- an Impressionism that, in Baur's words, "combined many of the qualities of his earlier work with a more cosmopolitan flavor."[Endnote 38] The earliest of the three great subjects that he was to produce that season was La Débâcle (Marie At Little Bridge). The sitter was not one of the peasants from the village but a fashionably dressed woman identified only as Marie, seated on the stone foundation of the bridge. She is "contemporary" to the point of being topical. In her hand is the most recent novel by Emile Zola, La Débâcle, published just that year and already read by Robinson. It recounts the severe defeat dealt France by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Its scenes of carnage were a far cry from the tranquility visible in the painting. Another twist on the title is gleaned through an understanding that Marie was the subject of Robinson's unrequited love. Her refusal to marry him was Robinson's own débâcle and helps to explain why he never returned to France after 1892. When he left that fall La Débâcle was one of the paintings that he took back to New York."[Endnote 39]

Perhaps Robinson's most famous painting -- and the only one to document a specific event frozen as a moment in time -- was The Wedding March, dated 20 July 1892, depicting the betrothal of the American painter, Theodore Butler, to one of Monet's step-daughters, Suzanne Hoschedé. Of the event Robinson entered in his diary: "A great day -- the marriage of Butler and Mlle. Suzanne."[Endnote 40] This painting was not based on a photograph or a drawing, but was painted from Robinson's memory with the groom's silk hat serving as his only model. It records the process of a French wedding in progress, with the couple being wed first at City Hall before a magistrate, then at a church before a priest. This is the procession from the mairie, or City Hall, to the old Norman church down the lane now known as the Rue Claude Monet. It was Monet himself who escorted the bride at foreground while Butler and Madame Hoschedé bring up the rear. The unidentified girl in the middle may be the youngest Hoschedé daughter. Giverny's City Hall is the orange-sided building in the upper-right corner of the composition. The entrance of an American painter into the Monet-Hoschedé household was of momentous consequence and would signify that Giverny would be, from thereon, an American artist colony.[Endnote 41]

Robinson's last great paintings of the 1892 season were the three under the title Valley of the Seine. These vast panoramas of the valley were painted from the same spot under different light conditions, demonstrating the American's allegiance to the methods of Monet whose series of Rouen Cathedral and Haystacks he was well acquainted with. Robinson expressed his deep fondness for the region in an article that he wrote about Corot: "The valley of the Seine is an ideal painter's country, in some sort a 'happy valley' whose charm has been felt by painter and tourist from Turner's time to our own, and there Corot was destined to spend many roving summer days of a joyous landscape-painter's existence."[Endnote 42] Robinson eschewed both the village and its inhabitants in this series concentrating instead on the gentle slope of the hillside and the flat farm land of the valley floor, interrupted by the wide expanse of the Seine beyond. Discernible in the distance is the old bridge which crosses the river to the town of Vernon. As part of the body of work produced during his final months in Giverny, Robinson acknowledges through these paintings the significant role the Valley of the Seine played in the development of modern French art. Uninhabited by figures, these paintings are portraits of the very "cradle of Impressionism" and represent Robinson's arrival at his mature Impressionist style.

VI: Return to America


On 3 December 1892, Robinson boarded a ship for his final crossing of the Atlantic. Living abroad as an expatriate was not part of Robinson's psyche. Despite his love of. France he was an American and wanted to apply the lessons of his French experience to the unique qualities of his native landscape. Robinson felt compelled to make a contribution to the realist tradition to which he had always felt connected.

The winter of 1893 was a time to catch up with old friends but not a particularly productive period for painting. He reconnected with Twachtman and the Weirs with whom he was to spend much time in the coming months. With his friends the Chandlers, Robinson made a trip in March to Cobham, Virginia. The painting, House in Virginia, was the result of this trip. From there he went to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, where three of Robinson's pictures were included in the American painting exhibit. He also sent several watercolors to the annual exhibition of the American Watercolor Society.

That spring Robinson left New York again, this time with the serious intention of painting the American landscape. He went to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Twachtman and the Weirs were living, but found the transition difficult and the results of this visit were not particularly fruitful. Due to mounting financial pressure Robinson was compelled to teach a summer class for the Brooklyn Art School, commencing 10 July near the Delaware and Hudson Canal at Napanoch, New York. Given his shyness and lack of confidcnce, teaching was not a favorite occupation. Perhaps aggravating this situation was the fact that his pupils were all female -- the norm for summer art classes at the turn of the century.[Endnote 43] However, his class received attention and one contemporary newspaper account addressed his predicament: "Mr. Robinson consented after a good deal of entreaty, to be the guide of these would-be impressionists... In spite of being a devoted artist, Mr. Robinson is fortunately gifted with a sense of humor which will carry him through the summer."[Endnote 44]

Robinson finished teaching his class, then stayed on at Napanoch to paint on his own. The results were a series featuring the canal, its locks and surrounding landscape. Port Ben, Delaware and Hudson Canal is one example. Robinson expressed disappointment with the series, but at their best these are strong and vibrant paintings that carry on the artistic momentum he had established during his final years in Giverny. The choice of an American landscape that was commercial and mechanized, yet rural was a remarkable combination of attributes that attained what Robinson had returned home to accomplish.

On 30 October Robinson left Napanoch for New York where he remained that winter. During this period he was embroiled in the politics of the American Society of Painters -- its identity as an artistically-progressive organization was being challenged by new, more conservative, members. Robinson was also busying himself with the production of watercolors for the annual exhibition and a commissioned view of the World's Columbian Exposition. His own harshest critic, Robinson was as usual unhappy with the results.

In May he went back to Greenwich for the express purpose of painting, but lost a month due to a severe bout of asthma. When Robinson regained his health in June he moved with friend, Henry Fitch Taylor, to the Holley House in near by Cos Cob. With regained strength Robinson produced his last sustained series of paintings. His subject that summer was the harbor and sailboats at the Riverside Yacht Club. Like the previous summer in Naponach, he turned to an entirely new subject absent of figures and their attendant considerations. Instead Robinson embarked on a series that combined his knowledge of Impressionism with a serious investigation into the compositional possibilities engendered by Japanese prints. Having been exposed to them regularly since the late 1870s, he was now collecting Japanese prints, along with Twachtman and Weir. Robinson's most overt embrace of Japanese aesthetics is apparent in the spatial organization of his Cos Cob paintings.

The very finest of this group and perhaps his most sophisticated painting of his career was Boats at a Landing. It exemplifies the best qualities Robinson was striving to achieve that summer. Nearly square, the format he favored for this series, the picture depicts four small boats beached on the shore at foreground with the harbor beyond. Light shimmers off the water's surface providing a sense, by means of his most Impressionist handling, of fluid movement. The foreground and background of the painting are bisected by a causeway. Each half is divided again -- by the dock in the foreground and the horizon line in the distance. With the exception of the three vertical masts pushed to the left edge, the composition is conceived as interlocking facets of color stacked horizontally on top of one another.By merging his impressionist technique with a compositional structure informed by Japanese prints,
Robinson closed a period of exploration and transcended to a new level of artistic understanding. Concluding her survey of Robinson's painting in Connecticut, Susan Larkin observed that: "In Cos Cob, [Robinson] discovered a complex yet commonplace subject that enabled him to reconcile cosmopolitan subject with nationalism, modernity and tradition."
[Endnote 45]

Following this burst of artistic productivity, Robinson consented to teach another class in July, this time at Evelyn College in Princeton, New Jersey. Although only one month in duration, he never regained the momentum that he had established at Cos Cob. After returning to Connecticut briefly in August he went to New Jersey in September in order to instruct yet another small private class at Brielle, near Princeton. Robinson's need to teach might be due to the lack of interest patrons had shown in the paintings that he had produced since his return to the United States. His financial concerns were eased in December by Robert Vonnoh's request that Robinson take his place at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, teaching life drawing classes two days a week. Another windfall was William Macbeth's offer of a one-man show at his gallery. The exhibition was well received critically, but sales were disappointing. However, the venture led to an offer of an exhibition at the St. Louis Museum of Art, which then traveled to other venues around the country.

During the winter of 1895, asthma was consuming more and more of Robinson's strength. He found the weekly commute to Philadelphia taxing on his limited reserves of energy and cutting significantly into his own time to paint. Union Square, New York, the major painting that he produced in February, was sent off to the spring exhibition of the National Academy of Design in March. That season Robinson was to produce other images of New York in inclement weather including A Rainy Day, New York -- a sketch shrouded in a gray rain and highlights of blue brushstrokes -- for his painting 5th Avenue at 23rd Street. But that winter was not as productive as he would have wanted.

By April, Robinson was considering another location to paint during the summer. While at Brielle, New Jersey the previous fall he had entered in his diary:: "Perhaps I should live inland -- need the inspiration of mountains or at least hill forms. He thought of Vermont, a region of beautiful hills and, as his place of birth, it held a sentimental attraction. To make the trip financially rewarding he decided to combine his time painting with instructing a select group of students. With his uncle Bela Brigham as his guide, Robinson explored the country and found a suitable house for rent outside the village of Townsend, Vermont with a view of the West River. Robinson moved there on 16 May with his students and cousin, Mrs. Cheney who had agreed to run the household for the duration of the summer. He enjoyed scouting the New England countryside in search of the right view. After several weeks he chose the ideal sight from which he would paint a panoramic landscape much like those he made on the hill at Giverny over looking the Valley of the Seine. Unfortunately, his work on the West River Valley did not proceed as smoothly as the paintings he had produced in Giverny three summers before. In early June he started a medium size painting of his new subject which he abandoned four days later due to a canvas that was,"very absorbent which I think bothers a little."[Endnote 47] On the 12th he stared a smaller canvas that he saw to completion. Twelve days later, on the 24th of June, he started his third painting and largest version of the valley, followed two months later, on August 22, with his fourth and final rendering of the subject. His diary entries of that summer record Robinson's tribulations over the progress of this series which so taxed his flagging energy. In search of a cloud filled sky he makes constant reference to the weather -- too clear, too overcast -- seldom were the conditions just right.

It is known Robinson saw three of the versions to completion; only the first is unaccounted for. The second version of West River Valley, Vermont is perhaps the most beautiful and confirms the successful transfer of Robinson's French experience to the United States, but with an added, distinctly American component. The box-like structures adjacent the rectangular fields under cultivation, and the bands of vegetation growing on the hillside furnish a geometric underpinning that provides the composition with a strength and stability. More than the simple desire to paint a good picture, Robinson's difficulty with this group may have signaled a deeper psychological need to equal, or even surpass, at home what he had created abroad.

As the warm days of early fall began to give way to the cold, the party dwindled in number. Robinson left Vermont in a snowstorm on 26 November 1895, marking the conclusion of his last productive period as an artist. The subsequent months were filled by minor efforts - -sketches, watercolors, and an illustration -- none of which Robinson found satisfactory. His last major effort was not a painting but an article on Jean Baptiste Camille Corot for the book, Modern French Masters, edited by John C. Van Dyck. Shortly after the completion of the article, the artist succumbed to the respiratory ailment that he had been suffering from all his life. Robinson's funeral was held on 4 April at the Society of American Artists in New York, and the body was then sent to Evansville, Wisconsin for burial.

As a painter's painter, his friends and colleagues respected Robinson's contributions and accomplishments in high esteem. He was recognized as the foremost practitioner of a style that had become, by the mid-1890s, the leading force in American art. Among the first to encounter Impressionism on its home soil Robinson was also among the few who could speak authoritatively of its leading figure: "Of them all," Robinson wrote, "M. Claude Monet is the most aggressive, the most forceful painter, the one whose work is influencing this present generation the most." Addressing what he admired about Monet's painting Robinson continued: "Monet's art is vital, robust, healthy. Like Corot's, but in more exuberant fashion, it shows the joy of living."[Endnote 48] Still, Robinson tempered the "joy of living" in his own painting by remaining loyal to the American artistic heritage. In his summation of Robinson's Impressionism, Baur concludes that because it remains "rooted in the American realist tradition, there is a quality of draughtsmanship and solid structure beneath his broken color which makes his work characteristically American." He did believe, however, that the "wedding of French born Impressionism to American art was one of Robinson's achievements, and it is this which gives him ... a measure of importance in the history of our art."[Endnote 49] The pioneer of Impressionism in the United States, Robinson set the standard for the investigation and development of the style by subsequent American artists.

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About the Author...

As of the date of the reprinting of this essay, April, 18, 2001, D. Scott Atkinson is Curator of American art at the San Diego Museum of Art . Since joining the Museum in July 1997, Atkinson has managed the Museum's collection of American art while curating several exhibitions. He most recently curated An American Pulse: The Lithographs of George Wesley Bellows (1999) and Picturing Paradise: San Diego in the Eye of the Artist, 1875-1940 (1999), for which he produced and co-authored accompanying catalogues. Most recently, he is organizing the exhibition High Societies for the San Diego Museum of Art, scheduled to open May 26, 2001.

For eleven years prior to that, Atkinson held the position of curator of collections and exhibitions at the Terra Foundation for the Arts (1985-1996). In this capacity, he programmed exhibitions for both museums operated by the foundation: the Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France and the Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois. Atkinson has contributed catalogue essays for numerous exhibitions including, William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, 1891-1902 for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1987). He has also organized and produced catalogues for many other important exhibitions. Among the many exhibitions Mr. Atkinson has organized, highlights include: Winslow Homer in Gloucester (1990); An American Pulse: The Lithographs of George Wesley Bellows; and Picturing Paradise. San Diego in the Eye of the Artist, 1875-1940. In early 2000, he wrote the above biographical essay about the American Impressionist, Theodore Robinson, for an exhibition held at the Owen Gallery in New York April 15 - June 15, 2000.

Atkinson received both a Bachelor's degree (1978) and a Master's degree (1981), in art history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He began his museum career in 1981 as assistant curator of collections documentation at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Between 1984-1985 he was curator for the Queens Museum in New York.


Other selected articles on Theodore Robinson and American Impressionism from this magazine:

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Mr. Atkinson's essay is courtesy of the Owen Gallery, 19 East 75th Street, New York, New York and the author.

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