Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)
Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)

Winter in New York City

Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)
Winter in New York City
oil on canvas
16 x 13 in. (40.6 x 33 cm.)
Painted circa 1890s.
The artist.
By descent.
Christie's, New York, 19 May 2005, lot 177.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.

Lot Essay

In 1876, Theodore Robinson traveled to Paris, where he trained in the studios of Emile August Carolus-Duran and Jean-Léon Gérôme. From these celebrated French painters, Robinson learned the importance of a rich painting technique and proper draftsmanship--qualities that he would develop over the course of his career.

The present work, Winter in New York City, was painted during the early 1890s in between Robinson's frequent trips abroad. Many American artists returned from studying in Europe to a rapidly changing urban and industrialized country. With the technical innovations of elevators, production of the I-beam and development of steel-frame construction, New York's dynamic skyline was ever-changing and painters and photographers delighted in depicting this evolving environment. Childe Hassam's Hovel and the Skyscraper (1904, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) depicts a broad view of Central Park bathed in a pristine winter light and in the foreground, construction workers rapidly assembling a new towering structure that will soon block this view of nature. Alfred Stieglitz's photogravure, Old and New New York (1910, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) similarly depicts a scene of the burgeoning city as scaffolding for a new skyscraper shadows old homes along an avenue in lower Manhattan.

Modern city planning began as the Industrial Revolution took over and threatened the beauty of cities and the health of people. The goal of city planning was to link roads, transportation, water and parks into a coherent, working and enjoyable city. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., considered the intellectual leader of the American city planning movement, wrote, "City planning is the attempt to exert a well-considered control on behalf of the people of a city over the development of their physical environment as a whole." (J. Nolen, ed., City Planning: A Series of Papers Presenting the Essential Elements of a City Plan, New York, 1916, pp. 1) John M. Carriére wrote in 1910, "Certain sections of every city must of necessity be ugly and forbidding, and such centers are a refuge and a relief. We must then aim at an interesting and attractive and beautiful way of getting from any one important point in the city to the next point of interest, so that in whatever direction we may travel we may find recreation and rest." ("City Improvement from the Artist Standpoint," Western Architect, vol. 15, April 1910, pp. 40-41)

In the present work, rather than focus on creating a composition that is a detailed rendering of a city park, Robinson has poignantly decided to focus on a larger theme of urban progress. He creates a powerful visual drama juxtaposing rectilinear masses at left and along the horizon in muted reds, blues and gray pigment against a park scene composed of streaks of green and white paint. The somber, Tonalist palette underscores the gritty modernity of American progress that seems to anticipate the Ashcan movement. "By the turn of the century, artists working in modes other than Impressionism were also investigating New York as appropriate subject matter. Tonalist painters--those working in a blurred, more muted manner, seeking evocative and even spiritual resonances-shifted their concern from the rural landscape to the city." (W.H. Gerdts, Impressionist New York, New York, 1994, p. 38)

Scholars believe the present work to depict either New York's Washington Square or Central Park. Based on the working methods of Robinson and the influence that Claude Monet had on the artist and his contemporaries, it is not surprising that the specific locale is not readily discernable. Regarding his style, Monet wrote in a letter to painter Lila Cabot Perry: "Try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you. The exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you." Similarly, Robinson would advise the aspiring artist, Jacques Busbee: "Don't separate 'values and color.' Consider your canvas a mosaic ground and you are playing with a lot of colored bits-moving them around until finally they are as near right as you can make them." (as quoted in S. Johnston , "Theodore Robinson and Claude Monet," In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore, Maryland, 2004, p. 71)

Throughout his career, Robinson's paintings received positive response from the critics, as they were perceived to express without pretension his personal approach to the Impressionistic style. A critic wrote in the Art Amateur, "Mr. Theodore Robinson is one of those who have really gained a good deal by study of impressionist methods...The narrowing of his aim in this case, as in so many others, has been the saving of the artist." And more than a decade after his death the critic Christian Brinton praised Robinson's canvases, calling them "radiant masterpieces," and writing, "The pioneer American Impressionist painted modest themes...There is no pose, no hint of pretense here. Robinson went straight to the heart of the scene, however simple and unambitious it may have seemed. Out of little he made much. He painted light, air, and colour. The purest lyric talent we have thus far produced, he sang a song steeped in outdoor brightness and objective tranquility." ("American Painting at the Panama-Pacific Exposition," International Studio, August, 1915, p. 30)

Unlike many American painters who converted to the Impressionist aesthetic with little thought, Theodore Robinson continued to question and probe the nature of Impressionism until his early death in 1896. He wrote in his diary in 1894, "I am impressed with the necessity of synthesis, and ignoring of petty details, and seeing things du grand coté. And this is not incompatible with modernité and the true plein-air feeling. . . Altogether the possibilities are very great for the moderns, but they must draw without ceasing or they will 'get left,' and with the brilliancy and light of real out-doors, combine the austerity, the sobriety, that has always characterized good painting." Winter in New York City represents the requirements of a successful picture described by Robinson--the necessity of synthesis, in which he combined sound draftsmanship with flawless observation of light and subtle tones of color to create a painterly composition of evolving city life.

This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Ira Spanierman and Sona Johnston.

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