Time in Giverny with Monet transformed Theodore Robinson's work, and much of what he learned he later passed on to another promising young painter.
by Stephen May
A recent exhibition on Theodore Robinson (1852–1896) highlighted the importance of his relationship with Claude Monet, who was his mentor during Robinson's visits to Giverny from 1887 to 1892. "In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny," organized by preeminent Robinson authority Sona Johnston, of The Baltimore Museum of Art, traveled throughout most of 2005, closing at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in Hartford, on September 4. The show's nearly 60 paintings drew parallels between the work of the two artists, showing Monet's considerable influence on Robinson, who is generally regarded as the first American to master the principles of Impressionism. The lessons Robinson learned from Monet would later live on in advice he gave as a mentor himself.
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Robinson made about six visits to Giverny, where he was befriended by Monet, who usually kept his distance from the numerous Americans who sought him out. Over the span of a few years, with Monet's invaluable guidance, Robinson's work evolved from the dark colors and introspective feel of the Barbizon School to the freer brushwork, brighter hues, commitment to plein air painting, sensitivity to atmospheric effects, and plentiful sunlight of French Impressionism.
Robinson and Monet dined together, had long conversations about theories of painting, and critiqued each other's work. Yet the American's mature Impressionism did not slavishly imitate the Frenchman's style. Indeed, Robinson forged his own approach, in which he adhered to the American realist tradition and his admiration for Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins—as evidenced in strong, accurate figure forms and a firm sense of structure—while incorporating Monet's concern for the effects of color, light, and atmosphere; a high-key palette; and a wide range of brushstrokes. He also followed Monet's practice of waiting for propitious atmospheric conditions before finishing canvases.
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One of Robinson's earliest and largest Giverny canvases, La Vachère, painted for the Paris Salon, is a sun-filled, full-length picture of a contemplative peasant woman and her cow standing amid verdant foliage. With its forceful brushwork, solid draftsmanship, use of jewellike colors, and emphasis on the effects of sunlight, this bright depiction set the tone for what was to follow. La Débacle, for example, one of the most beautiful paintings in the show, pictures Robinson's favorite model, Marie, glancing up from reading Emile Zola's recent novel of the same title. The bright yellow of the book, the blue and pink of Marie's dress, the tan of the footbridge, and the greenish tone of the landscape come together in a masterful Impressionist composition.
In his expansive, expressively painted plein air landscapes of Giverny, Robinson favored bird's-eye views of village structures and grain fields. In Val d'Arconville, a young woman in white—Marie—reads on a hillside above the town. Giverny offers an appealing view of the village and its environs.
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As their friendship deepened, Robinson reported in his diary that Monet asked him to critique some of the Frenchman's initial paintings in the Rouen Cathedral series. The American liked the concept of repetitive images so much that he created an impressive trio of landscapes titled Valley of the Seine. He painted them over a period of six months, returning to the same site repeatedly. Nearly identical in size, the canvases show the same scene from the same lofty site in bright sunlight, in sunshine with cloud shadows, and on a gray, overcast day, respectively. Monet said the latter was the "best landscape he had seen of mine," Robinson wrote in his diary. Although not as numerous as Monet's series of haystacks, poplars, and the Rouen Cathedral, Robinson's three-part series was a significant achievement.
Although Robinson was one of the few American artists to establish close ties with Monet, many of his countrymen found inspiration in the French Impressionist's work. Writing in the exhibition catalogue for this show, Monet authority Paul Hayes Tucker observes, "One of the most important mandates that Monet by example gave his American admirers in Giverny was to find significant subjects in their own country and to devote their efforts to immortalizing them, a challenge some artists, like Robinson, deeply appreciated after learning the value of place from the man they had learned to revere." In Robinson's case, in contrast to his earlier opinion that "American life is ... unpaintable," he later wrote from France that he intended to return home to paint "virile American pictures." Leaving Giverny and Monet for good in 1892, he searched, with varying degrees of success, for sympathetic locales where he could apply his Impressionist style to American scenes.
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In the last several years of his life, Robinson became a mentor himself, writing a series of letters to a talented young artist named Jacques Busbee. (Transcripts of the correspondence are at the North Carolina Museum of Art, in Raleigh.) Reflecting Monet's advice, Robinson stressed the importance of not getting bogged down with details but striving for an overall effect.
"Go very hard for true color and be satisfied, as regards form, with a sort of 'blocked-in' painting—ignoring the thin, ragged, small side of nature as can be done consistently—thus weeds, small forms like small leaves in certain places. Just as you ignore, for example, blades of grass and individual pebbles. And be much preoccupied with the whole and try and keep the canvas going along all together, nothing cut out and stopping anywhere. Better [by] far a thing well in harmony and done less well in its parts. Monet preached this constantly to me. Get in a way of working all over the canvas so that it all goes along together."
Responding a month later to Busbee, Robinson wrote, "I think every painter must reason out for himself the question of detail. I myself feel that it is a bit mathematical, logical. That is, it must be alike all over the picture—if you say 'in my trees I will only go so far' you must do the same in your figures. ... I think the Impressionists have got hold of the logical presentation or perhaps suggestion of detail and have helped 'down' the old studio fake of 'variety of texture.'"
In an earlier diary entry, Robinson observed that Monet "said he had quite lost the power of doing a thing at once and letting it go at that—as he did 25 years ago—now he wants to feel that he has time to keep at a thing for a certain space of time."
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Writing in the summer of 1893, Robinson, citing Monet's advice, cautioned Busbee "not to work on a motif when the effect had changed too much—to work all over the canvas and keep it going all together, thus having an ensemble from the start." In this context, Robinson added, "In going for color, I have tried to keep other things in mind, drawing, line, values—simplicity. By all means try and paint what you see, only don't try and paint fast, and opening your eyes wide pry into things, and presently you will find a mass, say sky, is not one flat, house-painter's tone but two or three colors twinkling together, and presently you'll find when you put a bit of house-painter's color on your canvas it looks dirty, dead. Don't separate 'values' and 'color.' Consider your canvas a mosaic ground and you are playing with a lot of colored bits—moving them around until finally they are as near right as you can make them."
Robinson warned the young painter about getting caught up in aesthetic theories, encouraging him to "paint your pine tree as dark as it looks and your shadow as light. Often in nature there are a few things exceedingly difficult to get the color right. Foliage against sky is one: keep at it until it is as right as you can make it."
Returning to the issue of color, Robinson urged Busbee to "search for color—the color of contours, color mosaic—fashion seen in detail, tho' not leading to commonplace detail painting. Ignore (at least for a while) 'substance' or any rot about 'textures' you may have heard, or 'local color.'" Reflecting his philosophy about his own art, Robinson concluded by predicting that Busbee will "arrive at that happy state when you hardly know why or how you 'do it' but are strongly impressed by some beauty in nature and quietly put down a translation, more or less faithful, as your talent will allow."
Robinson constantly preached the importance of drawing as the foundation for good painting. "Draw a great deal, in all ways and mediums—once past a certain age, it seems to be more difficult and it is so important," he wrote to Busbee in 1893. "Don't fail to work courageously at your drawing. ... Make studies, sketches of all kinds, charcoal, pastel, crayon, pencil, and your painting is going to come on fast enough," he wrote in 1894. Soon after he added about drawing, "Force yourself to make studies of all sorts." Later, he urged Busbee to "make particularly all the studies you can for pure drawing or line, with perhaps a suggestion of color (pastel or oil or water) but draw, draw, draw everything and all sorts of things and get all the character you can in these drawings. This is necessary foundation for all art—even the most evanescent or amusing, vivacious, or non-serious."
Robinson conveyed both the joys of hard work and confidence that outstanding paintings would emerge from his efforts. "I think my best years," he wrote to Busbee, "have been spent in working as intelligently as possible and out of the mass of things there would be a few good ones. Corot writes about getting back from the country with a lot of canvases, 30 or 40 'of which I hope 5 or 6 are good ones.'"
Above all, Robinson admonished his young admirer to do things he enjoyed: "Try to do something that will interest you—not make it a 'grind' the occasional hour you get to work, but an enjoyment." It was advice Robinson himself, and likely Monet, seemed to follow.
Stephen May is an independent historian, writer, and lecturer on art and culture. He divides his time between Washington, DC, and midcoast Maine.