Biography of Theodore
One of America’s Great Impressionist Painters
Researched and Written by Ruth Ann Montgomery.
From rather humble beginnings, one of Evansville's residents achieved
international fame as an impressionist artist. Theodore was considered
a pioneer in American Impressionism
Born in 1852 in Irasburg, Vermont, Theodore Robinson was the son of Rev.
Elijah and Ellen Robinson. The family moved to Wisconsin and, except
for brief periods of time spent in Milwaukee and Whitewater, the Robinson’s
settled permanently in Evansville.
Evansville people considered Theodore one of their outstanding young men.
In his adult life, Theodore became a friend and associate of such world
famous painters as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Auguste Renoir.
Since the 1880s, his work has been shown in some of the finest galleries
in the world.
In the fall of 1856 the Robinson family moved to Evansville. Theodore
was four years old and his father was the local Methodist minister.
Elijah and Ellen hoped to give their sons and a daughter an education at
the Evansville Seminary, a private school operated by the Methodist Church.
The Robinson's raised their family in the home at 340 West Main.
Theodore had asthma attacks and was often confined to the house until
the attacks subsided. His mother encouraged Theodore to draw.
Even as a child, his skills in penmanship and art were notable. The
quiet activities kept Theodore content during his asthma attacks.
The Robinson children were encouraged to work. One of Theodore's
first jobs was in construction, putting up lathe in houses. His asthmatic
condition forced him to seek work that was less hazardous to his health.
Theodore also worked in the Review office as a compositor. Isaac
Hoxie, the editor of the newspaper, described him as "one of the steadiest
and most industrious young men we ever knew". "There is not a young
man of cleaner habits, purer morals, or one whom Evansville would delight
to honor in any calling more than Theodore Robinson," Hoxie wrote in 1870
as Theodore was about to embark on a career as an artist.
As soon as he had graduated from the Evansville Seminary, young "Thad",
as he was known to Evansville people, went to Chicago to take lessons from
professional art teachers. He had already shown great promise with
pencil sketches and his family, friends, and neighbors were convinced he
had chosen the perfect profession.
The following year, in October 1871, the great city of Chicago burned
and Theodore returned home. However, at home, his asthmatic condition
seemed to get worse and created great difficulties. At times it was
so hard for him to breathe that it made life almost unendurable.
His healthy hours were devoted to creating crayon portraits from photographs
and many local people hired him to make their pictures. In July 1872,
he decided to travel to Colorado where the climate was supposed to be better
for people suffering from respiratory illnesses.
Relatives and friends gathered for a farewell party that was held on the
lawn of the family home in late July. Theodore traveled by train,
stopping in Chicago for a brief visit. He wrote a letter to the editor
of the Evansville Review reporting the crowds of workmen that he saw rebuilding
Chicago with red brick, and brownstones. With an artist's eye he
remembered the white marble used in buildings before the fire but said
that it had not endured the conflagration and builders did not want to use
it in the new construction.
Theodore found Chicago residents so busy with the new city that they were
much less friendly to artists in the period just following the Great Chicago
Fire. Many artists had left the city, according to Theodore's observations.
"Art is not quite 'played out' but a few remain, principally portrait painters,"
he wrote to the editor of the Review.
As he traveled west, Theodore visited his brother, Hamlin, and other former
Evansville residents who had moved to Marysville, Missouri. When
he arrived in Denver, Theodore sent back glowing reports and urged people
to come out there to improve their station in life.
An attack of fever and chills brought Theodore back to Wisconsin for a
month in March 1873 and in April he was well enough to go to Chicago to study
art. For the next year and a half, he supported his art studies by
traveling between, Chicago, Evansville, Madison, and Janesville selling
his crayon portraits.
"I will execute crayon portraits from photographs for a limited time.
Size 20 by 24 inches, single one for $10. Smaller sizes proprotionately
less. Satisfaction guaranteed. Theodore Robinson" read his
June 24, 1873 ad in the Evansville Review.
In October 1874, Robinson left for New York to further his study in art
at the Art Institute. During this time he was one of the founders of the
Art Students League, an organization that still aids young artists today.
He was gone for nearly a year when he returned home for a brief visit
and announced that he was leaving for Europe in September 1875. His
portrait clients were advised to "see him soon."
Another asthma attack almost forced him to delay his trip, but he was
determined to leave and sailed from New York in October 1875. His
first stop was Liverpool. Then he went to London and arrived at his
destination in Paris on October 22. His family reported
that he was in good spirits and was going to enter an art studio for study.
He studied with Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, a popular portrait painter
in Paris. His fellow students included another famous American artist,
John Singer Sargent.
When Theodore left this studio, he went to study with Jean-Leon Gerome
who also did portrait painting and gave Theodore his first lessons in photography.
Theodore was in Paris for four years. He also took classes at the
Louvre. His time in Paris was spent in study and his efforts resulted
in having several of his paintings hung in the art exhibits in Paris.
One of his first portraits shown was the daughter of his teacher and it
was highly praised.
A Chicago newspaper reported that Theodore Robinson was one of the most
promising portrait painters among the American students in Paris.
Their only criticism was that his paintings were too realistic. Blanche
Tucker, a Chicago Times correspondent, reported that "He is too truthful,
and let me say it as a friend, he does not flatter people enough.
His pictures are exact resemblances. His greatest hindrance to success
is his faithfulness to nature. A little more flattery of the subject
would largely increase his popularity,"
Theodore made a brief visit to Evansville in 1879. His study in
Europe had made him proficient in oil painting and he offered his artistic
talents in crayon and oil works to area residents before once again leaving
for New York.
His exhibits in New York were widely praised. "Mr. Theodore Robinson
of Wisconsin gives us one of those shabby little peasant girls, whom we
may have stumbled over in the streets or on the bridge at Grez, on the edge
of the forest of Fontainebleau, gives her a charming sketch, in which every
line shows power and brilliant promise of what he is going to do." To supplement
his income, he produced sketches for Harper's publications.
During the 1880s Theodore made frequent trips between New York and Europe.
The February 2, 1881, Evansville Review said that Theodore had left for
New York City: “Mr. Theodore Robinson, our artist, started for New York
city Wednesday night to ply his profession. He has formerly done sketching
for Harper’s illustrated publications.” In May of that year he was
elected to the Society of American Artists.
The Society of American Artists was founded in 1877, in protest against
the conservative guidelines of the older National Academy. The group
represented the young, liberal American artists, like Theodore, who were
exploring impressionism and other newer art forms. After he was accepted
into the Society, he served on juries for shows given by the organization.
At the end of May 1881, Theodore was called home by the news that his
mother was dying. Theodore was sick with a severe cold and
remained with his father for several weeks before returning to New York.
During this time, Theodore continued to paint scenes from his brother’s
farm and the Evansville area.
Robinson would travel back and forth from France to the United States
many times during the remaining years of his life. In 1884, Theodore
returned to France and during the next few years lived near Giverny and
while he was there, he was befriended of Claude Monet. It was during this
time in Giverny that Robinson first began to paint Impressionist pictures,
combining the new style with more traditional painting styles.
During his life, Theodore was awarded many honors for his work.
In 1890, he received the Webb Prize in 1890 for “Winter Landscape”.
It was an award given at an exhibition sponsored by the Society of American
Artists, “for the best landscape in the exhibition, painted by an American
artist under forty years of age.”
Theodore also received the Shaw prize for his painting "In The Sun". Four
of his pictures were exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, including
“A Charcoal of Monet”,
“A Marriage Procession in the Street
”, “Vachere”, and “Young Woman sewing under an apple tree in a garden”.
Theodore was also a teacher and conducted painting classes in Brooklyn,
New York and in Brielle, New Jersey.
He was one of the first artists to use a camera to capture images and
then transfer them to the painted canvas. Theodore believed that
the camera could be one of the artist’s most valuable tools. “Have
a camera to help in painting. Painting directly from nature is difficult,
things do not remain the same, the camera helps to retain the picture in
your mind,” Theodore advised his students.
He died in New York City on April 2, 1896 at the age of 43. His
funeral was held at the Methodist Church in Evansville. At the time
of his death he was considered to be one of the leaders in the American
Impressionist movement. His tombstone reads simply, "Theodore Robinson
Impressionistic Painter 1852-1896."
At the time of his death, Theodore had many unsold paintings in his studio.
His Missouri relatives, Hamlin's family, claimed that his studio was looted
by dealers and museum professionals after he died. There was no will
and claims of forgery and conspiracy have hung over the art work for years,
according to a recent article in the Cleveland, Ohio newspaper "The Plain
Four of his paintings were given to the Evansville High School in the
late 1890s. None of the four painting have been found to date.
For several years after his death, school children from the grade school
marched to Maple Hill Cemetery on the anniversary of Theodore's birthday,
June 3, to place flowers on the grave and remember the great artist who
had brought fame to Evansville.
throughout the United States and Europe have celebrated the work of Theodore
Robinson by exhibits. The Owen Gallery in New York City held an exhibit
from April to June 2000 and produced a wonderful catalog of the works that
were hung in their gallery.