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Artist Biography

One of the most important artists in American Impressionism, Robert Vonnoh was born in Hartford, Connecticut and was raised in the Boston area. At the age of fifteen, he worked for Armstrong and Company lithographers during the day and attended night classes at the Boston Free Evening Drawing Schools. In 1875 he was accepted into the Massachusetts Normal Art School to train as a teacher. In 1881, Vonnoh traveled to Paris and enrolled in the Académie Julian under Boulanger and Lefebvre. He returned to Boston in 1883, and established himself as a portrait painter. In 1885, Vonnoh was appointed instructor of painting at the Boston Museum School. He married in 1886 and honeymooned in Grèz-sur-Loing, which marked his first documented trip to this charming French village located south of the Fontainebleau forest.

Grèz was a popular artists’ colony during the 1870s and 1880s for British, Scandinavian, and an especially large number of American painters, including John Singer Sargent, Theodore Robinson, Willard Metcalf, Walter Launt Palmer, and Robert Vonnoh. The “Grèz School” was greatly influenced by two of the only French artists to work there, Jean Charles Cazin and Jules Bastien-Lepage. “[Cazin’s] method is entirely different from anything you have ever seen. Tone is the thing sought for, objects are never modeled, everything is treated as a flat mass.” This flat mass was heightened by the gray weather that ensconced Grèz day after day. “…Everything [was] being painted on the spot in the gray light, in order that there might be as little change in the effect as possible while the artist was at work.”

Vonnoh returned to Grèz in 1887, and maintained a studio there until 1891. Initially, his painting style adopted the same tonal quality of the colony, and he turned to painting the landscape as well. Around 1888, his palette brightened considerably, likely influenced by the works of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Artist and critic Eliot Clark noted: “Vonnoh must be considered historically one of the pioneer Impressionists in America. At a time when Twachtman was still absorbed in tonal grays, Vonnoh was applying paint almost directly from the tube in a system of vibratory complementary relations.”

Upon his return to the United States in 1891, Vonnoh accepted a prestigious position teaching portrait and figure painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was responsible for introducing the “new” French painting style to his students, among whom were Robert Henri, William Glackens, Maxfield Parrish, and Edward Redfield. In 1892, two galleries of the Academy’s annual exhibition were devoted to forty-two works by Vonnoh, the only American Impressionist to be so honored by the institution.

Vonnoh exhibited two paintings as part of the American department at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, one of which won him a bronze medal. He exhibited extensively throughout his career at venues including the Paris Salon, National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Boston Art Club, Corcoran Gallery, St. Louis Exposition, 1898; Cincinnati Exposition, 1898; and the Pan-American Exposition, 1901 (medal). His work is housed in renowned public collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Fort Worth Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the White House. In 1899, he married Bessie Potter Vonnoh, one of the most successful female sculptors of her time.

References:

May Brawley Hill, Grèz Days: Robert Vonnoh in France (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 1987)

Brian H. Peterson, et. al., Pennsylvania Impressionism (Philadelphia: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2002)