American, 1852–1896


Theodore Robinson spent much of his career in France and was influenced by a succession of styles: academic Realism, Barbizon painting, and Impressionism. A frequent visitor to New York and a resident there in the last years of his life, he introduced many Americans to Impressionism.

The artist was born in Irasburg, Vermont, the son of a Methodist minister. In 1855, his family moved to Evansville, Wisconsin, where he attended the Evansville Seminary. He began to draw at an early age, and in 1869 or 1870, he went to Chicago to study art, but poor health, caused by chronic asthma, forced him to spend some time in Denver, Colorado, before returning to Evansville. Settling in New York in 1874, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design and participated in the formation of the Art Students League.

In 1876, Robinson went to Europe, and after traveling through Normandy, took a studio in Paris. AT first he studied in Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran’s (1837–1917) atelier but soon transferred to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he worked under Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). He exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1877 and during that summer painted in the countryside at Grez-sur-Loing and Veuels-les-Roses with William Hicock Low (1853–1932), Birge Harrison (1854–1929), and others. The following summer or autumn, he went to Venice, where he met James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). At the end of his student years, his style of painting was characterized by draftsmanship and bright, often high-key colors.

Robinson returned to America in 1879 and, after visiting his family in Evansville, settled in New York in 1881. For the next three years, he supported himself by teaching and doing decorative work, first for John La Farge (1835–1910) in Tarrytown, New York, and then for the firm of Prentice Treadwell in the Metropolitan Opera House. After his mother’s death in 1881, he visited his family in Wisconsin and Vermont, and the following summer, painted on Nantucket with Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921) and Joe Evans (1857–1898). He also visited Boston, presumably to do decorative work, but these decorations have not been identified. The few easel paintings that he completed during this period are realistic, broadly painted, and high in key. They show his increasing attention to the effects of life and atmosphere.

In the spring of 1884, Robinson gave up decorative paintings and returned to France, where he spent much of the next eight years. Painting in Paris and such rural locales as Barbizon and Giverny, he exhibited at the Salon between 1887 and 1890. At first his work lacked direction: using a dark palette, he painted small simple sketches, often on wood panels, and at times, he reverted to decorative or sentimental subjects. An admirer of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875) and Charles Daubigny (1740–1830), Robinson did somber landscapes and figure paintings of peasants outdoors. Then, in 1888, he met Claude Monet (1840–1926) at Giverny. Under the strong influence of this artist, he began to paint in a more impressionistic style. His subjects—landscapes and figures outdoors—remained the same, but his palette became lighter, his paint surfaces less finished, and his compositions less academic. Robinson’s forms, however, never dissolved in light; their contours remained decisive. His colors were also more delicate than those favored by the Impressionists. More important, he retained a strong sense of design in his compositions, undoubtedly the result of his decorative work during the 1880s. As a working aid, he often used photographs to record specific effects, particularly for his figurative works. The artist made frequent trips to New York between 1886 and 1890, when he took an extended trip to Italy. Robinson’s interactions with is fellow American artists and the exhibition of his paintings in New York and Boston, such as those during his 1891 show with Theodore Wendel (1859–1932), did much to familiarize his contemporaries with Impressionisim.

When Robinson returned to America permanently in December 1892, it was with the conscious desire to depict American rather than French subjects. During the remaining years of his career, his landscapes became more representational and more topographical. He settled in New York, where his closest friends were Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919), John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902), and August Jaccaci (1857–1930), then art editor for Scribner’s. Plagued by ill health and constant poverty, he again supported himself by teaching. He conducted summer classes for the Brooklyn Art School in Napanock, New York, in 1893 and at Evelyn College in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1894; the following year, he took over Robert William Vonnoh’s (1858–1933) classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

 In February 1895, the New York art dealer William Macbeth organized Robinson’s first one-man show, which later toured the country. He painted landscapes in Greenwich and Cos Cob, Connecticut, and Brielle, New Jersey, but it was not until that year, while teaching in Brattleboro, Vermont, that he was satisfied with his attempt to depict the American countryside. “All I have don up to this year’s work as not been an emotional statement of myself; I have not felt my subjects. This year I got back among the hills I knew when a boy…I am just now beginning to paint subjects that touch me,” he told Hamlin Garland the last time they met (Brush and Pencil 4 [Sept. 1899], p. 285). He died in New York in the spring of 1896, at the age of forty-four, a victim of asthma. His friends held a funeral for him at the Society of American Artists in the Fine Arts Building in New York, and he was buried in Evansville, Wisconsin. 

(Burke, Doreen Bolger, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. III, A Catalogue of Works by Art and Artists Born between 1846 and 1864, 1980).

Museum Collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Claremont
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Terra Foundation for American Art Collection, Chicago, IL

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