Theodore Robinson Impressionist artist and his home at 340 West Main Street

By Ruth Ann Montgomery

From rather humble beginnings, one of Evansville's residents achieved world fame as an impressionist artist. 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 they settled permanently in Evansville.

Theodore, who Evansville people considered one of their outstanding young men, 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 that was just getting started when they moved to the village.

Elijah became a Methodist minister at the age of 20. After he came to Wisconsin, he continued his ministry until his asthma became so severe that he could no longer serve the church. However, throughout his life he carried on many of the duties of a minister. He performed marriage ceremonies and was frequently asked to officiate at anniversary parties where wedding vows were repeated.

Ellen Robinson was born in Jamaica, Vermont in 1826 and married Elijah in 1844, when she was just 18 years old. They continued to live in Vermont until 1855 when they moved first to Illinois and then the next year into Wisconsin. Three children were born in Vermont, Hamlin, Theodore, and Ellen, their only daughter. The youngest son, John, was born in Wisconsin in 1859.

The Robinson's raised their family in the home at 340 West Main. Elijah bought the land in 1857 from Anson Francis for $450 and built the house that became the family home. His frequent illnesses caused by asthma forced Elijah to give up the ministery and become a clothing merchant.

He was also active in Evansville's first village government. In 1867, he was elected as a Trustee to the first Village Board. Elijah was very concerned with protecting the youth of the village from bad influences and one of the first ordinances proposed by Robinson was the ban on pool halls. "The billiard room of this village is detrimental to the morals of the youth of this village and should be closed", he told the Board. The cry of outrage against the playing of billiards was carried through the rest of the century.

Tragedy came to the family in October 1864 when Ellen and Elijah's only daughter, Ellen died at the age of 14. Ellen Robinson frequently had the care of both Theodore and Elijah. Both father and son had asthma attacks and were often confined to the house until the attacks subsided.

She encouraged her son to draw. Even as a child, she noted his skills in penmanship and art. Quiet activities, such as art work, kept Theodore content during his asthma attacks.

The Robinson children were encouraged to work. John began working on a farm at age 13 and found his life-long vocation. His father signed the papers for him to purchase his first farm when he was too young to sign them himself.

One of Theodore's first jobs was 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 the following month he was off to Chicago again 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. 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.

The next four years were spent in study and he was rewarded by 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 critisism 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 hindrence 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. In May1881, he was elected to the Society of American Artists, a group 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. His brother, Hamlin, also came home from Marysville, Missouri, where he was the telegraph editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat at Marysville. Neither of the sons arrived in time to see their mother alive. John, who had settled on a farm west of Evansville, was the only child of Elija and Ellen to remain near the family home.

Ellen Robinson died of cancer in May 1881 and her funeral was held in the family home at 340 West Main. Friends and neighbors brought flowers to cover the casket. They crowded the little house to attend the funeral and honor her for her work in church activities and her devotion to family and friends. Hamlin returned to his home in Missouri several days after the funeral, but Theodore was sick with a severe cold and remained with his father for several weeks before returning to New York.

Elijah Robinson had sold his clothing store business to Isaac Hoxie, editor of the Evansville Review in April 1880. When his health allowed him to work, Elijah kept regular business hours at the store, while Hoxie operated the newspaper business.

Though he had not been active as a church minister for twenty years, Elijah was still a favorite of young couples who were getting married and was said to have performed more weddings than any other minister in Evansville. It was also noted by the Evansville Review that few divorces ever took place after Elijah joined the couple.

In the summer following Ellen's death, Elijah decided to visit his old home in Vermont. He left in July and returned a month later. Theodore joined him on the trip. The vacation and visiting relatives near his birthplace seemed to restore Elijah's health and he made plans to spend the winter in Florida. In late November, 1881, he took the train to Sanford, Florida.

However, he found the weather rainy and unpleasant. "Everything is new and strange," he wrote back to the Review editor. "Oranges are all the rage. Orange lands are sold at fabulous prices. If I was young I might think of starting an orange grove." He returned to Evansville in April 1882 and declared it was good to get back to Evansville and see familiar faces again.

In June 1882, Elijah married Mrs. Charlotte B. Eldredge and she nursed him through several illnesses. In March 1887, Rev. Elijah Robinson died at his home on West Main Street. The funeral was held at the Methodist Church to accommodate the large crowd of people that attended the services.

Theodore was in France and could not make it home for the funeral. Hamlin, also did not return for the funeral. John, the youngest son, was the only one present for the services. The house became the property of Elijah's second wife, Charlotte who was granted a life tenancy, according to deed records.

Theodore survived his father by just nine years. During that time, he received more honors. He was awarded the Shaw prize for his painting "In the sun" and four of his pictures were exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. 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 Dealer."

Four of his paintings were given to the Evansville High School in the late 1890s. For several years 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.

In the early 1900s the house at 340 West Main became a rental property after being purchased by Allie Ballard. In 1922 the house was sold to Ernest and Eliza Salvisberg for $1700. The Salvisberg's owned the house until 1935 when it was sold to Ferdinand Lange.

Lange's daughter, Ina, had married Gordon M. Jones in 1933 and they purchased the house from Langes in September 1947. Jones held several jobs in his lifetime, working in the Smith Tobacco Warehouse, The Grange Store, Baker Manufacturing co. and the Great Plains Gas Co.. He also owned a pump business. Following his death in 1991, his wife Ina remained in the house until her death. The house is now owned by Terry, Margaret and Christopher Jones.