Theodore Robinson was born 3 July 1852 in Irasburg, Vermont and died 2 April 1896 in New York City after his final battle with the severe, chronic asthma that plagued him all of his forty-four years. His letters showed that he struggled constantly with his illness and with the complex challenges that his art presented. Nevertheless he managed to create much memorable work in his short life.
Of all the American artists that might be called impressionists, Robinson was the one who shared the closest friendship with the great French master Claude Monet. Ironically, Robinson's own rather reserved, dry style shows less affinity for the joyous exuberance of Monet than does the painting of other Americans such as Childe Hassam. Robinson's contribution to his countrymen came not only from his well-considered, studiously observed paintings, but from his enthusiasm for French impressionism and his dissemination of aspects of it to his American colleagues. At least two of his impressionist paintings won public honors; one the Webb Prize in 1890, and another the Shaw Fund Prize in 1891.
Robinson was raised in Wisconsin, the son of a one-time minister, sometime farmer. In 1870 he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for a short time, until his asthma forced him to briefly seek relief in Colorado. He enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1874 and shortly thereafter helped to organize the Art Students League. Two years later he traveled to Europe, studying in Paris first under Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran and then under Jean-Leon Gerome. He wrote home with joy when one of his paintings was accepted into the Salon of 1877. In Venice in 1879 Robinson met Whistler, an experience that held importance to him his whole life. After returning to New York Robinson's funds came from a teaching position at Mrs. Sylvanevus Reed's School and from assisting John LaFarge with decorative mural projects. From 1881 to 1884 Robinson worked as a decorative painter in the firm of Prentice Treadwell in Boston. He spent the summer of 1884 at Barbizon and visited Holland the next year.
From 1887 to 1892 Robinson lived mostly abroad, making several lengthy visits to the United States. Beginning in 1887 much of his time in Europe was spent in the French village of Giverny. Robinson and several artist friends appear to have discovered the quietly beautiful setting while on a train trip in search of a propitious locale for their landscape efforts. According to some accounts, it was not until after they had settled there that they discovered it was the site of Claude Monet's country home. Monet generally tried to avoid the influx of young artists that eventually threatened to overun his village, but he interacted with a few, among them Robinson. The two spent many hours dining and conversing. While the American held a deep admiration for the Frenchman's work and enjoyed his company, he was never a pupil of Monet.
Robinson's last stay in Europe was in 1892. Thereafter he sought to rejuvenate himself by addressing American subjects. The early summer of 1893 was spent in Greenwich, Connecticut where Robinson often worked beside his friend John Twachtman. Later Robinson taught art students at Napanoch, New York. The following year he returned to Connecticut, first to Greenwich, then to nearby Cos Cob. Again, he reluctantly turned to teaching to earn a living, this time at Evelyn College in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1895 he taught classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His first one-man show was held that year and he spent the summer at Townshend, Vermont. He was intrigued by the challenge of depicting his native state and intended to return the next summer to improve upon his initial efforts there. That winter, however, he died in New York. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Baur, John F. Theodore Robinson, 1852-1896. Brooklyn, 1946.
Johnston, Sona. Theodore Robinson 1852-1896. Exh. cat. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, 1973.
Clark, Eliot C. Theodore Robinson: His Life and Art. Chicago, 1979 (from an unpublished essay written in 1920).
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 89-90.