Theodore Robinson

American, 1852 - 1896
Fine Art as an Investment: Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)
by Lisa Bush Hankin

In his brief yet wide-ranging career, Theodore Robinson established himself as a major figure in the early years of American impressionism, one of the only artists to work alongside Claude Monet. New York dealer Ira Spanierman, who along with the Baltimore Museum of Art's Sona Johnston is co-authoring the catalogue raisonne of Robinson's work, calls Robinson "one of the few greats" in American impressionism, an assessment backed up by the impressive prices for the artist's work, with a record auction price in excess of two million dollars.

Born in Irasburg, Vermont, Robinson moved to Wisconsin as a young boy, and enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Design before moving to Denver and then New York. After studying at New York's National Academy of Design and Art Students League for several years, Robinson, like other ambitious young artists of his day, sought out further instruction in Paris. Arriving there in 1876, he traveled and painted on the European continent during summers and sojourns. He came back to America for five years in late 1879.

Returning to France for an extended period in 1884, Robinson was among the first group of American artists to paint in the now-legendary art colony at Giverny, where he became one of only a handful of foreigners to forge a working relationship with impressionist master Claude Monet. Robinson's thoughtfully structured and delicately colored canvases earned him the opportunity to paint alongside Monet, not as student and teacher, but as colleagues who by all accounts enjoyed each other's company and painting techniques, exchanging influence and critiquing one another's work. This proximity to Monet, Ira Spanierman notes, made Robinson a leading figure in the Giverny colony, a topic that was explored in the 2005 exhibition organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and its accompanying catalogue, In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny; the most recent major museum exhibition to focus on the artist's work.

In addition to his prized landscapes (Figs. 1-2), painted at Giverny and other locations throughout Europe and the United States -- including Cos Cob, Connecticut; Nantucket, Massachusetts; along the Delaware and Hudson Canal in Napanoch, New York; New Jersey; and southern Vermont -- Robinson also produced a number of well-regarded genre scenes, often choosing the subjects of women at work or engaged in quiet contemplation. A particularly intriguing figure who repeatedly appears in Robinson's work is a model named Marie, whom Spanierman calls the artist's "mysterious girlfriend." Though little is known about Marie, it has been speculated that Robinson may have secretly been married to her, adding mystique to the group of works in which she appears (Figs. 3-4).

According to Ira Spanierman, the market for Robinson's work is somewhat more complex than for some other artists, where certain subject matter or periods of production may command uniformly higher prices. With Robinson, "it's about the power of the painting itself -- the light, the color, the brushstrokes," he observes. Because Robinson died at age forty-four, not a great number of his works exist -- perhaps 700 in all, according to Spanierman -- making his legacy all the more impressive considering the brief period in which it was built.

Article appeared in the Antiques and Fine Art Summer 2007 issue, www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles
Of the many American painters drawn to the French Village of Giverny, Theodore Robinson made the most lasting and meaningful contribution to American Impressionism. "The most significant of the Girvernois," writes Professor William H. Gerdts "was Theodore Robinson. Though he died quite young, his work received far more critical notice in America than that of any other artists during Impressionism's crucial formative years there... Most important his painting was stronger, more varied and at its best perhaps more beautiful than that of many of his contemporaries." (American Impressionism, New York, 1984, p. 66)

Whereas Robinson's pictures from the late 1880s and earlier were more tightly rendered, it was not until around 1888, when he moved next door to Claude Monet, that he fully adopted the Impressionist aesthetic. And by the early 1890 he had liberated his paint application to create more painterly, livelier surface qualities clearly evident in paintings. Robinson acquired a thorough understanding of Impressionism through the work of Claude Monet, yet the American painter was not merely an imitator of the French master. Robinson absorbed Monet's theories and built on them to create works that reflected his personal style of Impressionism. Sona Johnson has written, "He did not abstract the image before him as Monet had advised. With few exceptions his forms remain solid, firmly defined, and the subject matter is always clearly identifiable. Although the degree of his initial devotion to Monet's Impressionism is obvious, his art demonstrates a selection and a subsequent interpretation of these elements most sympathetic to his manner of expression." (Theodore Robinson, Baltimore, Maryland, 1973, p. xiv)

Unlike many American painters who converted to the Impressionist aesthetic with little thought, Robinson continued to probe the nature of Impressionism until his early death in 1896. He wrote in his diary in 1894, "I am impressed with the necessity of synthesis, and ignoring of petty details, and seeing things du grand cote. And this is not incompatible with modernite and the true pleinair feeling. . . 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 outdoors, combine the austerity, the sobriety, that has always characterized good painting."

Biography courtesy of Roughton Galleries, www.antiquesandfineart.com/roughton
Theodore Robinson was one of the earliest and most important American Impressionists active in France. He began his scholastic career at the National Academy of Design before traveling to Acadamie Julian, Paris, where Robinson preferred to paint in tight Realistic style. Robinson returned to France in 1884 after accumulating enough money to finance his trip. He continued to visit Giverny in the summers from 1887-1892 and was welcomed by Monet into his studio and home. Like Monet, Robinson chose particular landscape scenes as a series at different times of the day. This was a real turning point in Robinson's career because he was very influenced by Monet but did not choose to imitate him. Robinson's colors were softer than Monet's, with lighter brushstrokes and decisive contours, making his painting more sensitive. Robinson returned to the U.S. and settled in Greenwich, CT in 1893. He helped form and name the Art Students League and taught landscape painting at the Brooklyn Art School in the summers of '93 and '94. His well known painting "Valley of Seine from Giverny Heights"(1892) shows the effects of sun, gray and slight overcast lighting. Robinson's later work became hazier with looser strokes.

Biography courtesy of The Caldwell Gallery, www.antiquesandfineart.com/caldwell
As one of the first, and most important, American Impressionists, Theodore Robinson helped to introduce the French style to American artists and audiences. His life was one of promise and influence that ended too soon, snuffed out by an asthma attack at the age of forty-three.

Robinson fully immersed himself in French painting, embracing the cosmopolitan current of fin-de-siecle art. After studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he formed his Impressionist style at Giverny, alongside Claude Monet. In the 1880s, Monet was considered the leader of the French School, with Americans "flocking" to his home in Giverny. Robinson was one of the few artists to work closely with Monet; he stayed at the art colony regularly between 1887 and 1892 and collaborated with Monet on many works. Yet theirs was not a relationship divided between master and pupil: Robinson's aesthetic developed in response to Monet's, marked by both convergence and divergence. Even as Robinson adopted Monet's vigorous handling and heightened surfaces, he remained faithful to the muted tones, solid construction, and volumetric realism of the American tradition.

These areas of divergence became more pronounced after Robinson returned to the United States in December of 1892, determined to reconnect with the American soil. As he adapted his French method to the landscape and art world of the United States, he developed an increasingly complex personal style-showing the beginnings of an evolution from Impressionism to abstraction.

During his time in America, Robinson helped to found the Art Students League and won the Webb and Shaw Prizes from the Society of American Artists. The Brooklyn Museum of Art held a major Robinson retrospective in 1946; the Baltimore Museum of Art mounted a traveling exhibition in 1973. His work is also in the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art, as well as the Musee d'Art Americain Giverny.

Biography courtesy of Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, www.antiquesandfineart.com/questroyal
loading data Loading...