Biography of Theodore Robinson
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. In February of 1881, the local newspaper said that Theodore had
left for New York City and in May, 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 Dealer."
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.
Many art galleries 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.
Claude Monet by Theodore Robinson,
March 20, 1867, Evansville Citizen,
Evansville Review ad 873
July 31, 1872, Evansville Review, p. 1,
col. 3, Evansville, Wisconsin