Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)

Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)

Theodore Robinson was born in Irasburg, Vermont, in 1852, and three years later his family moved west, first to Illinois and later settling in Evansville, Wisconsin. Robinson demonstrated his artistic tendencies at an early age. His father was a minister and members of his congregation were often sketched by the young Robinson during church services. At age 18, Robinson left Evansville for Chicago to begin his art studies. Having a talent for portraiture, Robinson returned to Evansville and earned a living making crayon portraits from photographs. But the balance of working and studying caused some strain on the young artist, who had suffered from asthma since childhood. After a time of recuperation in Denver, he decided to continue his art education by moving to New York City, enrolling at the National Academy of Design in 1874. While at the Academy, Robinson helped to form the Art Students League with a group of his fellow students and by 1876 he took his first voyage abroad, arriving in Paris to work in the Atelier Duran and later, studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Gerome. He stayed overseas for three years, and during that time met artists John Singer Sargent, Will Low and Birge Harrison, among other expatriates.  Towards the end of his stay, he traveled to Italy in the fall of 1879 where, while in Venice, he was delighted to meet James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 

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After his return to the United States in 1879, Robinson settled in New York and made a living as an art instructor and as an assistant to John La Farge, under whose tutelage Robinson and friend Will Low painted decorative panels for the senior artist’s mural designs. Around 1881, Robinson was hired by the Boston decorative firm of Prentice Treadwell where for the next three years he created his own designs for the beatification of wealthy patrons’ homes.  The stability of the position in Boston allowed him to save up enough money for his eventual return to France in 1884.

In the time that Robinson was away from France, impressionism was beginning to gain momentum as a legitimate art movement and not simply the rebellious streak of a younger generation. Claude Monet, arguably the most influential practitioner, had his first solo exhibition in the early 1880s, though he had been exhibiting with his fellow impressionists in group shows since 1874.  Many artists followed his lead, leaving the confines and strictures of the studio environment for the openness and light-changing effects of the natural world. In 1887, excited by the prospect of exploring this new direction in painting, Robinson, along with several artists, traveled the French countryside and settled in the tiny village of Giverny.

Robinson and artists Willard Metcalf, John Leslie Breck, Theodore Wendel and William Blair Bruce, among others, are credited with founding the artists’ colony in Giverny. They were apparently unaware that Monet had been living there for four years prior to their arrival, and Monet preferred to keep his distance as a number of younger artists joined the colony over the years. However Robinson, traveling back and forth from America to France between the years 1888 and 1892, always returned to Giverny and therefore established a close friendship with the master. Monet’s impressionist teachings had an influence on his American friend, though Robinson used the broken color technique only in moderation and preferred using the subtle tones of neutral purples and gray-greens and painting in diffused light when applying his own technique. 

Robinson returned permanently to America in 1892 in an attempt to apply his newfound style to the landscapes of his homeland. He eventually took a teaching position in Napanoch, New York, and exhibited at the Society of American Artists, the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was met with only moderate success, though irregardless of what critics or the public thought, he was highly respected among his fellow painters and duly admired by the younger generation at the Society of American Artists. In 1894 he discovered the charm of Cos Cob, Connecticut, painting several marine subjects, and later that year he accepted short-term teaching positions in New Jersey.  He had his first one-man show at William Macbeth Gallery in New York in February of 1895, but the show was not a huge success, and financial troubles and poor health continued to plague him. In May of that year, Robinson returned to his birthplace, Vermont, and stayed with relatives for a time of recuperation.  Sadly, in April of 1896, one of the pioneers of the American Impressionist movement whose mature painting style was just getting underway, died of an acute asthma attack at the young age of 44, in the New York apartment of one of his relatives.

References:  Eliot C. Clark, Theodore Robinson, 1979; William H. Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony, 1993; Sona Johnson, Baltimore Museum of Art, Theodore Robinson, 1852-1896, 1973. 

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