Cosmopolitanism and the Gilded Age
Object-Theodore Robinson, Blossoms at Giverny
Theodore Robinson, one of the foremost American impressionists, was a friend of Claude Monet (1840–1926) and lived in the same French village as the master from 1888 to 1892. Blossoms at Giverny is one of two closely related works Robinson painted there that depict a little girl followed by a woman beneath blossom-laden trees. The soft pink that dominates the image is reminiscent of the subtle hues of apple trees during spring and creates a sense that the whole picture is in bloom. Captured from an elevated point of view, the scene displays a tipped-up perspective that reflects the influence of Japanese prints. The faint traces of penciled grid lines under the paint suggest that Robinson copied the composition from a photograph. If so, the painting shows how he combined modern technology—to capture a moment in time—with the immediate and spontaneous brushwork characteristic of impressionism.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
A painting with the title From a Chamber Window was exhibited in 1895 at Theodore Robinson’s first solo show. We do not know with certainty what work that title referred to, but from the description of the painting it was likely either Blossoms at Giverny or In the Orchard (1891, Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey), which are similar in format, scenery, and subject matter. The original title suggests that the scene was captured from the artist’s second-floor room in Giverny, France, where he would have taken the photographs used as sources for his paintings. Though the photographs themselves are now lost, the graphite grid used to transfer the photographic image onto the canvas is still visible in Blossoms at Giverny. Furthermore, the moments depicted in the two paintings appear to be based on photographs taken a few seconds apart. The sequence gives rise to a sort of narration that affords Robinson’s scene a cinematic character.
In the first “still,” Blossoms at Giverny, we see two figures walking toward the right, a few steps away from one another, enveloped by the branches of an apple tree in bloom. The viewer senses that the figures will soon leave the field of vision, following the descending diagonal line that marks the path. In the second still, In the Orchard, the viewpoint of the painter has shifted to the right and turned slightly to the left. He has also zoomed in a bit on the figures, who have now stopped, face to face. Robinson emphasizes the inconsequential nature of the scene by leaving the action in the back- ground, almost out of focus. The possibility of reading this work in cinematic fashion is in keeping with the idea that early cinema appropriated the subject matter and techniques of the impressionists, a thesis explored in the 2005 exhibition Impressionnisme et naissance du cinématographe (Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon). The bird’s-eye view in Blossoms at Giverny results in a daring composition, exceptional in Robinson’s oeuvre. The painter combined the daily act of observing what was happening beneath his window with new ways of seeing, fueled by novelties such as the Japanese prints, stereoscopic views, and aerial photography that were popular in France and the United States during the 1880s.
Robinson, like the impressionists, sought to capture modern life with the greatest realism possible. Scenes of passersby are common in the work of the French impressionist painters whom Robinson would have known. Blossoms at Giverny was included in the traveling 2014–2015 exhibition American Impressionism, organized by the Musée des Impressionnismes, Giverny, and the Terra Foundation for American Art, in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. In the accompanying catalogue, curator and art historian Frances Fowle points out that a striking compositional similarity casts this work as a rural version of The Boulevard Seen from Above (1880, private collection), painted by Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) eleven years earlier. Caillebotte captured what he saw from the window of his apartment in Paris at an even sharper angle than the one used by Robinson. In both works the ground becomes a backdrop against which the branches of a tree and the figures of the passersby stand out, a space hard to understand at first, but nevertheless faithful to what the painter had seen.
Assistant Curator, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid