Seeing The Light

American impressionist Theodore Robinson, long relegated to Monet's shadow, deserves the attention he's getting from the BMA.


October 16, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A young woman stands at the edge of a clearing, oblivious to the mottled brown cow that has just wandered out of the woods behind her. As her nimble fingers embroider a bit of white cloth, she seems to be musing about things far away.

This sun-dappled scene, with its hint of melancholy, was painted in 1888 by Theodore Robinson, one of the first American artists to adopt the new impressionist style in France.

Robinson completed La Vachere (roughly translated as The Cowgirl) while living in the tiny French farming village of Giverny, 40 miles northeast of Paris, where Claude Monet, one of the pioneers of impressionism in the 1870s, had settled only a few years earlier.

Monet generally avoided the small colony of expatriate American painters who were drawn to Giverny's picturesque locale. But he and Robinson seemed to hit it off: The two artists became fast friends, and it was largely under Monet's influence that Robinson mastered the new painting technique, with its fresh, expressive brushwork and luminous palette.

Now Robinson's light-filled landscapes, portraits and genre scenes, most of which are still much less well-known than those of his French counterparts, are the subject of a revelatory exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny recounts the story of Robinson and Monet's friendship through about 60 paintings, watercolors and drawings that Robinson executed during six extended visits to Giverny between 1887 and 1892.

The exhibition was organized by Sona Johnston, the BMA's senior curator of painting and sculpture and a leading expert on Robinson. In 1973, Johnston organized a major traveling retrospective of Robinson's work that helped reintroduce the artist to American audiences after nearly a century's neglect.

Robinson, plagued from birth by ill health, never deserved the obscurity into which his work fell after his death in 1896 at the age of 43.

Born the third of six children in rural Vermont and raised in Wisconsin, he first traveled to Paris in 1876 as a pupil of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, having studied at the Chicago Academy of Design and New York's National Academy of Design.

At Carolus-Duran's, Robinson's fellow students included the Americans John Singer Sargent and Will H. Low. Robinson and Low developed a lasting friendship as a result of their mutual interest in the Barbizon painters of the previous generation.

But it was not until Robinson discovered Giverny a decade later that he came into his own as an impressionist. There, in the broad valley of the river Seine under Normandy's brilliant skies, Robinson created a series of ever more assured and poetic landscapes depicting the region's changing atmospheric and seasonal moods.

He was fond of painting views of the village from the hills overlooking its farmhouses and fields, using strong diagonals to emphasize the rolling contours of the land.

As he assimilated Monet's influence, his brushstrokes became freer and his touch acquired a bravura expressiveness that allowed him to record the subtlest changes of light and color.

He also adopted motifs explored by Monet, such as the region's towering grain stacks, rustic bridges and the many small streams that coursed through the area.

In The Duck Pond, for example, the towering trees along the bank are reflected on the water's sunlit surface while a trio of wild ducks paddle in lazy circles, creating shimmering eddies in their wake.

The whole scene is rendered in pale shades of green and blue, with yellow and lavender accents that reveal Robinson as a close observer of nature's woodland hues as well as a vibrant yet subtle colorist.

Before his arrival in Giverny, Robinson had been known primarily as a figurative painter, and though landscapes would increasingly occupy him during his years in France, he continued to paint lively genre scenes during his visits to the countryside.

Among the most charming of his figurative works are those he did of friends and acquaintances in the village, and particularly those of a young woman named Marie, about whom little is known.

Robinson often depicted Marie engaged in such genteel pastimes as reading, playing the piano or sewing. She is the model for the large painting of the woman tending a cow that Robinson produced in 1888 for the official French Salon. She also appears in a landscape view made the same year from a hillside overlooking the valley of Arconville opposite Giverny.

Many of these scenes can be traced back to photographs that Robinson, like Degas and others, often made as an aid to composition.

In The Layette, for example, Robinson depicts Marie sewing a set of baby's clothes while seated outdoors beneath a large tree. On a photograph the artist created as a preliminary study, the grid pattern he drew over the image prior to transferring it to canvas is still visible on the paper's surface.

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