A leading American Impressionist, Theodore Robinson’s work was perhaps the most traditionally French in style. Born in Irasburg, Vermont, Robinson was raised in Evansville, Wisconsin. He studied art in Chicago and New York before moving on to France for the better part of two decades. Arriving in Paris in 1876, he studied with Carolus-Duran and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Carolus’s work was spontaneous, and one only has to see the work of his most famous student John Singer Sargent to appreciate those qualities. On the other hand, Gérôme worked in a meticulous style, which he passed on to his American pupil Thomas Eakins. Robinson wished to blend the two styles in his own work. He did this through the pioneering use of photography, and well-orchestrated, large-scale compositions. The subjects were a product of his rural American upbringing, and often related to the art of Winslow Homer, whose work he was known to have admired.
Robinson worked on both sides of the Atlantic until 1884, when he made France his primary residence. There he joined a group of six other artists who elected to spend their summers outside of Paris, in and around the village of Giverny. Giverny held numerous attractions for the young artists: it was close to Paris, the scenery was delightful, as it was located in a rural valley of the Seine, between Paris and the sea, and last, but not least, it was the home of Claude Monet. Monet was justly famous for his contributions to Impressionism, but was something of a recluse. Possibly due to the negative reactions to his earliest and then most radical work, Monet did not encourage students to work around him. The Americans were something of an exception, and in the mid- to late- 1880s, Theodore Robinson, Theodore Wendel, Willard Metcalf, Louis Ritter, Henry Fitch Taylor, and the Canadian William Blair Bruce were actively working in Monet’s backyard. Eventually, another American painter, Theodore Butler, married one of Monet’s stepdaughters.
Of all of the Americans who worked in Giverny, Robinson was Monet’s favorite, and the closeness of the relationship is extensively documented in the surviving volumes of Robinson’s diaries. Despite his mentor relationship with Monet, Robinson was slow to adopt the high-keyed palette of the older artist, and continued to produce traditional peasant images. His work was often likened to that of Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Millet. What ultimately developed was an overlay of Impressionist color on images of French working folk. Only when he returned to America in 1892 would his palette brighten significantly. Sadly, Robinson died four years later, cutting short the career of one of America’s most promising Impressionist painters.
John I. H. Baur, Theodore Robinson. Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1946, no. 111, p. 66.