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-siècle art. After studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he formed his Impressionist style at Giverny, alongside Claude Monet. In the 1980s, Monet was considered the leader of the French School, with Americans "flocking to his home in Giverny. H. Barbara Weinberg contends that "Robinson achieved perhaps the most significant and enduring artistic relationship with the French master," while William Gerdts calls him "the most significant of the American Givernois." Robinson stayed at the art colony regularly between 1887 and 1892, collaborating 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—what Gerdts classifies as a conversion subject to certain qualifications."
These "qualifications" became more pronounced after Robinson returned to the United States in December of 1892, determined to reconnect with the American soil. He moved to Vermont three years later, back to the area where he had been born "back to what I believe is my country." There Robinson devoted himself to painting the region's rural villages, broad valleys, and sloping hills. His Vermont landscapes, which he found a little solider, better grasped, firmer" than those he had produced in France, would be his final legacy.
Painted on April 10, 1895. Jamaica, Vermont lays bare the selective properties of vision, the artist's particular impression of a scene, translated through the artistic frame. Such is the effect of Impressionism, and Monet's influence is discernable in the painting's varied brushwork and high horizon line, which create an immediate effect of ornamental flatness." Yet 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.
Jamaica negotiates a complicated range of flatness and depth, shifting between two and three dimensions. This results largely from Robinson shifting between the conventions of French Impressionism, which dissolves solid form in light and atmosphere, and those of American landscape painting, which emphasizes volume, perspective, and mass." As Robinson 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. Sona Johnston, the curator of the 1973 Robinson retrospective, explains how "the disintegration of recognizable forms, ambiguous spatial relationships, and a freedom in the use of medium all imply the search for new methods of expression which consumed Robinson upon his return to America."
In Jamaica, the viewer can gain no static, stable perspective; as the hills swell and recede warped by Robinson's crisscrossing lines of green, blue, red, and white-notions of foreground and background, space and distance, disappear. The vitality of the brushstrokes and decisive cropping of the work make the viewer acutely aware of the artist's presence, locking the image in a constant process of conception. Robinson is felt in each insistent brushstroke and at each edge of the composition; we see the landscape through his distinctive vision. As one of Robinson's last works, Jamaica immortalizes the final flickering daubs of an artist facing his own mortality. We cannot help but think of what's beyond the frame-a promising artistic talent whose vision was cut short too soon.
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 Musée d'Art Américain Giverny.
Theodore Robinson's skillful, vibrant interpretation of Impressionism established him as a key proponent of the style, both in the United States and abroad. In addition to developing his own version of this artistic style, he promoted the work of Impressionist painters in his teaching and writing.
Born in Irasburg, Vermont, in 1852, Robinson moved to Wisconsin at an early age. Encouraged by his mother, he began formal artistic training at the Chicago Academy of Design in 1869. Shortly thereafter, the chronic asthma that ultimately cut short Robinson's life forced him to suspend his studies. Four years later, Robinson resumed his studies in Chicago before enrolling at the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1874. He became involved in the New York art world and participated in the founding of the Art Students League of New York.
Two years later, Robinson, like many of his contemporaries, went to Paris to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. He proceeded to the École des Beaux-Arts, the studio of the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. He also studied at the private atelier of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, where he met a number of American art students, including J. Carroll Beckwith and John Singer Sargent. Beginning in 1877 he spent summers in the village of Grèz-sur-Loing, a gathering spot for American artists working in the French Barbizon style. After a trip to Venice during which he met James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Robinson returned to the United States in late 1879. Having exhausted his financial resources, he established himself as an art teacher in New York City, assisted John La Farge with a number of mural projects, and worked for Prentice Treadwell on architectural decorations in Albany, Boston and New York. By 1884 he had accumulated enough money to return to his beloved France.
Based in Paris, Robinson spent summers at Barbizon and visited Holland and Dieppe. The turning point in his career arrived when, in 1887, he spent the first of five summers at the small farming village of Giverny, located on the Seine in the Normandy region of France. Claude Monet had settled there in 1883; however, scholars are unsure whether Robinson and his artist-friends were aware of the French painter's country home when they made their first trip there. Irritated by the presence of the young American painters in Giverny, Monet took pains to avoid them. Nevertheless, Robinson was one of a select few Americans to develop a close friendship with the French artist. Passages in Robinson's personal diaries and letters reveal that he made frequent trips to Monet's home to discuss matters of art.
Although not formally a student of Monet's, Robinson became part of his inner circle and soon began painting in an Impressionist style. Robinson certainly borrowed artistic ideas and techniques from Monet, but his work was immediately distinguished from Monet's by its thinner application of paint and softer, more muted palette. Like almost all American Impressionists, Robinson never fully dissolved the human figure and other forms in light, but retained solid forms, vestiges of his academic training. Robinson embraced Monet's practice of painting the same scenes outdoors at different times of day in order to more fully understand the effects of light upon the landscape.
In December 1892, Robinson left France to set up permanent residence in New York. His fame as a practitioner of Impressionism preceded him—he had been awarded the Webb Prize for landscape by the Society of American Artists in 1890. Robinson assumed a public role as an advocate for Monet's work. In an influential article published in Century Magazine in September 1892, he praised and defended the French artist's Impressionist style.
Robinson spent the rest of his career painting landscapes, often working in the Connecticut countryside in the company of close friends J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman. They would paint together, critique each other's work, and endlessly discuss and debate Monet's theories. Through his work as teacher at the Brooklyn Arts School, Evelyn College in Princeton, New Jersey, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Robinson also introduced the Impressionist style to a younger generation of American artists. By 1896, when he died of an acute asthma attack at the early age of forty-three, Robinson had succeeded in educating the American eye to an appreciation of impressionism.