In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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Valley Seine Giverny

Valley of the Seine, Giverny, 1887.

Oil on canvas, 16 1/4" x 13".

Los Angeles County Museum of Art,

Gift of the 2001 Collectors Committee, M.2001.72.

Theodore Robinson visited France for the first time in 1875 at the age of 23 and stayed there through 1879, studying in Paris with Karl Lehmann, Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, Jean-Léon Gérome, Alexandre Cabanel, and probably Benjamin Constant; entering his work in the Paris Salon; and traveling in France and Italy. From 1884 through 1892, he spent part of his year there, after 1886 in the small village of Giverny, about 50 miles northwest of Paris. He was otherwise mostly in New York City, where he died of an acute asthma attack in 1896, at the age of 43.

Being in France all that time, Robinson was quite aware of the new developments in French painting, of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, though his teachers were all academicians. But it was not until the years in Giverny, in the presence of his friend and mentor Claude Monet, that he was able to break free from the more stolid and picturesque everyday scenes of his earlier paintings in the United States. The specifics of place, light, and color became far more important to him. He let the simplicity of the landscape and its forms at Giverny engage him, finding that the hills and fields, buildings and bridges, trees, river and roads, people and animals, were worthy of study from every angle, and from the same angle over and over again in changing conditions of light and weather, often with the aid of photographs he took. The new certainty and depth of his vision is powerfully expressed in Valley of the Seine (1887), in which a tiny figure in white anchors a configuration of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and describe several hillside swaths of yellow and gray, and a triangle of blue sky. The colors are muted, layered, and almost trenchantly earthen, as they would remain in all Robinson's subsequent work.

La Vachere

La Vachére, 1888.

Oil on canvas, 86 3/8" x 59 5/8".

The Baltimore Museum of Art,

Given in Memory of Joseph Katz

by his Children. BMA 1966.46.

Many of the people Robinson portrayed lived there and were very much part of the countryside he adopted--mostly women, at the well, gathering wood, sewing, gathering fruit, washing clothes at the river--and they are indeed aspects of the scenes, as in most Impressionist paintings. Only one of his models is clearly defined and dominant in his compositions, and it is she, perhaps separate or self-conscious like himself, who seems to represent his love of the place. She is always thoughtful and in profile, playing the piano, tending cows, sewing, reading a book. She activates every scene in which she appears, rather like a muse, whereas others are absorbed in their surroundings, so her figure is often more classical and complete in its three-dimensionality. The dappled leaves and grass, the Impressionistic handling of light, provide a setting for her presence. Even the cow looking straight out at us in La Vachére (1888) seems to know this. All we know about the woman is her first name, Marie, that Robinson probably met her in Paris in 1884, that they may at some point have agreed not to marry, and that they remained in contact by mail even after he finally returned to New York, until his death.

In the Orchard
In the Orchard, ca. 1891.
Oil on canvas, 20 1/8" x 16 3/8".
Princeton University Art Museum,
Gift of Frank Jewett Mather, Jr.
Robinson learned a great deal from Monet's serial paintings of motifs under changing conditions of light, his paintings of haystacks and poplars, but took the idea in quite a different direction. The effect of some of Robinson's series is cinematic, often in terms of some human narrative, rather than atmospheric and coloristically transitional. This perhaps relates to his habit of recording scenes in photographs, which then served as models and reminders of a scene, sometimes to the point of their being overlaid with a grid for the purpose of transferring the scene to canvas. In the Orchard (ca. 1891) has a young woman and young girl standing on a path beneath a tree, all seeming to dissolve in the brilliant light, including the shadows cast on the ground by the tree. The figures are woven into an incredible pattern of branches, flowers, and shadows, seen through the tree from an odd angle above, as though the whole thing were a projection from a source outside the scene. Another painting from this same point of view is no different in its makeup of light and color, in how they might have been observed over time. What is different is the placement of the figures, presumably at some time preceding that of the other painting, the girl facing forward, the woman some paces behind. They are like two scenes from a movie, which may be interesting in terms of later developments.

Also in series are three paintings of the Valley of the Seine (1892), all viewed panoramically from the same point on a hill looking toward the town of Vernon across the river. Again, it is not so much the color that changes; the subdued earth colors remain, in all three works, only darker and lighter according to the shadows of clouds and other general conditions. Robinson does not investigate the makeup of color, how it might be composed of a multitude of colors. He is thinking cinematically, in time, from one moment to the next, so that there is an endless continuum. Monet's works in series, on the other hand, can never be connected this way. If time is to be stopped in one painting, it cannot be started in another, only stopped again. Robinson could only record what Monet exalted

Donald Goddard © 2005

Valley Seine
Valley of the Seine, 1892.
Oil on canvas, 25 3/4" x 32 7/8".
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA,
Museum Purchase, 1934.3.

The exhibition was shown at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004.
Organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art, it was originally mounted there  and was seen at The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT.


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