Robinson’s Impressionist Compositionality

Heilbronner fig1

Theodore Robinson was an American painter whose work was influenced directly by the techniques of French Impressionism. Impressionism marked a dramatic change in the art of the period by shifting subject matter from the historical to the contemporary. It also challenged the Salon, the highly selective and the only respected art exhibition of the controlling École des Beaux Arts (Rubin, 45). Impressionist artists strayed from the conventional studio mode of production and instead created works outside, en plein air, resulting in a looseness of brushstroke that suggested life’s transient nature. Impressionism enabled a never-before-experienced freedom of expression in painting, a liberty that inspired a certain openness in the works and thus an invitation for emotional connection. Such a connection is possible with Robinson’s oil-on-canvas portrait, Variation on La Vachère (1888-89), with the Impressionist philosophies and techniques manifested in the work’s subject matter, spatial organization, color, brushstrokes, and handling of light (figure 1). It is through the combination of these elements that viewers’ focus is directed toward the young woman. Concentrating on her face, viewers access and closely observe the woman’s pensiveness and melancholy.

Robinson’s subject matter is reflective of Impressionism’s concern with contemporary life rather than historical subjects associated with the French academic tradition. Impressionist artists dismantled the “hierarchy of subject matter,” loyal to the belief that “landscapes and genre scenes were worthy and important” (Khan Academy). Thus nineteenth-century France began to see portrayals of everyday life, of contemporary scenes that were understandable, comfortable, and relatable. Robinson’s work exemplifies this type of painting; his subject is a then-contemporary young villager, wearing period clothing and engaging in sewing. This relatable, understandable moment would have allowed nineteenth-century viewers to feel close with the painting, its accessible subject matter thus generating subject-viewer intimacy.

The spatial organization of the painting sets up a particular way of seeing that allows for complete focus on the young woman, making it possible for the viewer to recognize (and ideally contemplate) the melancholy she appears to experience. The woman’s only slightly-less-than-life-size scale makes her more visible, more available in space, guiding the viewer’s gaze to her. Robinson’s near-life-size rendering of her body makes it easier for the viewer to imagine the young woman as she appeared in reality, confirming the idea that something realistic, something true, is being represented; this idea, in turn, inspires a connection between viewer and this “real” subject. Such a connection leads viewers to recognize the subject as experiencing very real, very true human emotions, prompting at least some level of concern for those feelings.

There is also a level of intimacy produced by the scale of the work. For instance, the young woman’s left elbow looks almost as though it could be rubbing against the surface of the canvas, contributing to the closeness between the viewer and subject that connects the viewer emotionally—rather than just physically—to the work. It became a common practice of Impressionists to paint their subject matter without much depth of space; by applying paint in a heavy, highly textured manner, subjects were pushed to the surface of the paintings, resulting in a flattening of space (National Gallery of Art). In Robinson’s work such flattening is achieved largely because the planarity of the background offers no indications of three-dimensional space.

That the woman is turned away from viewers further draws them in to the work (though perhaps counterintuitively so) by forcing them to question the woman’s emotional being, perhaps more than they would were a direct, front-facing connection with the woman possible. No eye contact is extended to the viewer here, prompting a desire to discover what those downcast eyes could otherwise reveal. Perhaps the woman’s indirect gaze is a plea for viewers’ interest, encouraging their perception of a reflective sorrow in the woman. Thus, in this context, a feeling of physical closeness with the woman translates to an emotional closeness with the woman, persuading viewers to invest in an exploration of the woman’s contemplative sadness.

The muted colors in the painting frame the figure of the woman, emphasizing her presence and her melancholic state. Low-saturation, low-value hues pervade the composition; most of the colors are cool, inspiring a calmness that is mirrored by the woman’s thoughtful downward gaze. The darkest part of the composition is the portion of the background cocooning the woman’s left side. It is as though these deeper-toned hues push the woman into a shade or shadow of some sort, metaphorically reflecting her “dark” (or at least not bright) emotional state. The right side of the background is quite a bit lighter, delicately outlining the woman’s profile and creating one of the sharpest edges of the entire composition. One significant element of the Impressionist style was the exploitation of color in rendering light. Shadows were not black, but rather became darker extensions of surrounding colors. Such a technique can be observed in Robinson’s work; the shadows on the young woman’s are dark beige, simply a variation of the beige hue that fences these shadows. The lighter hues and saturations surrounding the woman’s face illuminate it, stressing the importance of her expression in the context of the composition. The woman’s face in this context holds the key to her dual state of thought and sorrow; thus by stressing focus on this area through its sharp outlining Robinson leads viewers to the source of her melancholy. Here the background colors blend particularly well into each other, resulting in a harmonious backdrop that focuses attention on the woman’s pensive sadness by enveloping her figure.

Heilbronner fig2The ability of the work to shape viewers’ focus is due in large part to the visual power of the painterly brushstroke, a technique that came to define the Impressionist style. Such visible and expressive brushwork was thought to “embody visual modernity as personal and self-conscious rather than conventional or mechanical” (Rubin, 40). Many feared the Realism of academic art, whose works were considered by its opponents to be “slavish and mechanistic reproductions, like photography” (Rubin, 45). To understand this viewpoint, let us survey French artist Jacques-Louis David’s 1784 oil-on-canvas painting The Oath of the Horatii (figure 2). Based on a seventeenth-century play about a conflict between two feuding cities in Republican Rome, the painting depicts the moment when three brothers from the Roman Horatii family swear to their father their commitment to go to battle. Behind the men we see their wives lamenting over the realization that their husbands will be leaving them, possibly never to return. This painting had great political significance at the time; it expressed the notion that one’s duty to the state was more important than one’s family, and that reason was to be valued over emotion (Marlais). We also see here the Neoclassical attempt at visual perfection; not one brushstroke is visible, a reflection of academic art’s emphasis on accuracy and realism. Thus by observing the unexpressive rendering of the David’s painting we can better comprehend how and why Impressionist techniques allowed for more emotional impact than did the more rigid methods of academic art.

Unlike in The Oath of the Horatii, the brushstrokes in Robinson’s painting are clearly detectable, representing the freedom inherent in capturing a fleeting moment in nature. There is a juxtaposition of the background brushstrokes’ rendering and that of the brushstrokes making up the woman. The background brushstrokes are more expressive—they are messier and less cohesive. However, Robinson uses much neater and smoother brushstrokes to paint the woman, resulting in a figure that is more defined in the composition and thus more easily observed by the viewer. Such full focus on the woman allows for recognition of her emotional state, as is directly reflected in the composition’s rendering: a feeling of fuzzy sadness punctured by a deep, clear state of pensiveness. Robinson, like other American Impressionists, was known to have deterred from the practice of en plein air by completing paintings in his studio; however, here his brushstrokes’ intimation of quick, outdoor work imbues the painting with a greater sense of both intimacy and realness.

The transient character of the scene in Robinson’s painting is displayed perhaps most effectively through Robinson’s careful exploration and rendering of light. In paying such close attention to light (in addition to color) Impressionists sought to “capture a momentary sensory impression on the canvas” (Schaefer, 73). The abundance of natural light offered by plein air painting “generated a broader range of bright and dark hues” (Schaefer, 73), a new phenomenon that enabled artists to capitalize on dramatic contrast to inspire emotional drama. In the case of Variation on La Vachère, Robinson appears to have been painting on an overcast day, making use of the “neutral daylight of a cloudy sky” to provide soft yet convincing shadows (Schaefer, 74). The painting is generally uniform in its levels of brightness, offering a mellow shine that can be seen clearly on the woman’s nape. Such softness of light reflects the atmosphere of the portrait while placing focus on the woman: the melancholy present isn’t intense but rather is a muted sadness, as reflected in the muted light of the painting.

Heilbronner fig3The impact of light on the type of atmosphere produced in Impressionist paintings is Heilbronner fig4strongly illustrated when we compare two works (both painted in 1890) that were part of a series by Claude Monet. Monet and other Impressionists produced series paintings (sets of multiple works that depicted the same subject at different times of day) to practice close observation of the visual effects produced by continually changing natural light. In Haystacks in the Sun (figure 3), the brightness of the day is represented through the stark contrast between the light pastel grass and the haystacks’ deep periwinkle shadows. There is a similar contrast in Haystacks in the Sun, Middle of the Day (figure 4); the mid-day sun has bestowed the haystacks with a warm, orange shadow, the trees with army-green shade. Thus also demonstrated through these two works is the intersectionality of light and color, demonstrating that light plays many roles in the realization of an Impressionist painting. As fervid Impressionism defender Emile Zola once said, “It is the light which sketches as much as it colors, which places each thing in its place, which is the very life of the painted scene” (Kimball).

The compositional aspects of Robinson’s painting together create the conditions by which viewers are able to focus their attention on the young woman and, as a result, recognize and then comprehend her emotional state. Impressionist style allows for the impact made by the work’s compositional elements, generating a greater accessibility of subject matter and thus enabling an emotional connection with the subject. As present-day viewers, however, we are observing this painting at a time far from its original historical context. How do we know that Impressionism has the same influence on viewers today as it did decades and decades ago? How is it that we can claim modern-day interpretations as linked to any past realities? Robinson’s painting ultimately leads us to ask important questions about the human condition—about what, how, and why we see, both then and now.

–Sara Heilbronner

Works cited

Khan Academy. “Impressionism.” (accessed April 24, 2014).

Kimball, M. Douglas. “Emile Zola and French Impressionism.” The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association (1969): 51-57.

Marlais, Michael. “Neoclassicism.” Survey of Western Art Lecture Notes. April 8, 2014.

National Gallery of Art. “Tour: Claude Monet: The Series Paintings Overview.” (accessed April 21, 2014).

Rubin, James H. Impressionism. London: Phaidon, 1999.

Schaefer, Iris, and von Saint-George, Caroline. Painting Light: The Hidden Techniques of the Impressionists. Milano: Skira, 2008.


Figure 1. Theodore Robinson, Variation on La Vachère, 1888-89, oil on canvas, 21¾ x 17¾ in.,  Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Figure 2. Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm., Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Figure 3. Claude Monet, Haystacks in the Sun, 1890, oil on canvas, 23 x 39 in., Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT.

Figure 4. Claude Monet, Haystacks in the Sun, Middle of the Day, 1890, oil on canvas, 65 x 100 cm., Australian National Gallery, Melbourne.


  1. srheilbr says

    Thanks for your response, Pedro! I definitely appreciated the fact that Writing Project 2 provided the opportunity for many different research paths. You commented on your interest in the inherent nature of the brushstrokes’ meaning—I actually found this element of the work’s composition (the brushstrokes) to be the most fascinating part of my analysis. There is absolutely a power in the art itself, a power that exists independent of larger contextual—say social, political or other—information. In engaging solely with the painting’s compositional characteristics I learned that art can be meaningful in its own right, that it can have an intrinsic meaning—and an intrinsic beauty—that can then lead to significance outside the frame.

  2. srheilbr says

    Thank you very much for your comment, Annie! To answer your question about why I chose to include David’s Oath of the Horatii, I did so in order to illustrate (through comparison) the differences in style and content between Impressionist art and the [only accepted] Academic art of the period. I thought that Oath of the Horatii nicely demonstrates Academic artists’ lack of expressive brushstrokes—here not one stroke is visible. This painting also demonstrates the subject matter of Academic art—that it always had a moral or historical purpose. These literally “academic” goals were absent in Impressionist work, the goal of which was to represent contemporary life in an honest and emotional manner.

    Also, I am happy that you asked whether one could identify any similarities between these two paintings. Looking again at the two, I notice a similarity in the presence of a light source. Both artists seem to have recognized the value of using light, either from a natural source (in the case of Robinson) or an artificial source (in the case of David). In connection with this use of light, like Robinson, David uses other, darker color variations to make shadows, rather than simply using neutral or black hues.

  3. srheilbr says

    Thank you for your comment, Yohann! I like your description of Academic art as “cerebral” and “stark,” two adjectives that I think very accurately describe this category of artwork. You asked about what drove the Impressionist movement; in a brief, simplified answer, Impressionism was a reaction to the very exclusive and limiting world of Academic art, adherence to which was the only way to gain respect and become successful in the art world at the time. It might be helpful to browse through this page on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: It explains clearly that Impressionism, unlike Academic art, served to depict contemporary, modern-day life as opposed to traditions and lessons of the past.

    You also asked how Impressionism was received by its contemporaneous audience. I am not completely sure of this answer, but what I can say is that the new exhibition created by Impressionists (the creation of which was driven by the refusal of impressionist works into the Academic art salons, or exhibitions, of the time) began to gain more and more interest, growing in size and prestige in the years after it was first established. I would encourage you to take a look at James H. Rubin’s comprehensive study of Impressionism in his book Impressionism (a Phaidon publication); he nicely outlines the formation of the new Impressionist platform, tending to the opinions of both the supporters and critics of this artistic revolution.

  4. srheilbr says

    Thanks for responding, Erin! I agree with you that “The Good Eye” is merely a starting point—albeit one with many analytical possibilities—for understanding the full implications of a work of art.

    You asked about the differences between French and American Impressionism. Funny enough, this same question arose in my own research, and unfortunately I did not devote much time to its answering because it was not essential to the furthering of my thesis. From the little information that I did graze over, it seems that American Impressionism wasn’t radically different from French Impressionism; France was simply the vehicle by which Impressionism entered into the American art world. I would, however, like to refer you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online Heilbrunn timeline [], which gives a nice outlining of some of the features (and artists) of the American Impressionist style.

    I did, in my research, read about the considerable influence that French Impressionist artist Claude Monet had on the work of Robinson. It is remarkable how much power one artist can have on another, on artistic style and also on mode of production.

    You also said you were interested in learning more about the methods of and philosophies behind plein air painting. This type of painting was adopted because it allowed Impresionist artists to work with real, natural sunlight (as opposed to artificial studio light). This technique also allowed artists to successfully portray in their work a sense of the fleeting character of nature, what with light and color changing constantly outdoors. A succinct definition summing up the general purposes of this technique can be found at

  5. I’d like to first off by saying how my I enjoyed how you interwove the conceptual practices of impressionism into you discourse analysis. It gave me a far greater respect into writing project two making me wish that I had done that project instead! What interested me most was the way with which you discussed the inherent meaning behind brushstrokes that artist used and how that created further meaning in the painting. It interested me that with certain brushstrokes the artist was able to capture the emotional state of “Oath of The Haratii”. Great work.

  6. Sara, your discourse surrounding this image is truly incredible and I am very impressed with the lengths you went to discover this! Your interpretation of the image was very interesting and I loved your in depth analysis of impressionism and how it was portrayed in America. I guess I am just still a little stuck on your inclusion of Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii because I still have trouble seeing any connections between the two. I like how you exemplified the differences between realism and impressionism between your original painting, and the new painting itself, but are there any similarities you could explore as well? Overall I think you did a great job with this writing project and loved the inclusion of many other paintings to help prove your point.

  7. This certainly has been an interesting read for me. Your visual analysis explores the compositional elements holistically leading to a deeper understanding of Robinson’s work and the other two paintings under a similar discourse. It is fascinating to see through the comparison of these paintings the “revolution” the Impressionist school started. As you point out, the Impressionist school disregarded the styles and content of the preceding schools that favoured cerebral and stark realistic paintings in lieu of, perhaps aesthetic, visceral paintings. So we see, for instance, the Neoclassical painting, The Oath of the Horatii, “teaching” history. Being academic as it is, it is nowhere near expressing or sparking emotion on viewers as Variation on La Vachère would do. Finally, I would also want to know what drove this movement, and how it was accepted by its contemporaneous audience, although French Academy of Fine Arts, in France, for instance, rejected their style wholly.

  8. Before I say anything else, I would like to preface that this discourse analysis is absolutely brilliant. From writing project two, I am keenly aware of the frustrations and limitations we were presented with in prohibiting research. Reading your post makes me wish I had also returned to writing project two. I see that there is much to learn in researching beyond what we saw with “The Good Eye”. I’m afraid I’m rather ignorant when it comes to art history, so I cannot comment much about the transition from Neoclassical painting to Impressionism, however I am astounded in how the two styles can accomplish such different effects on their viewers. Until reading this, I was only vaguely aware that Impressionism was a more emotional style of painting. By pointing out how the brush strokes, colour, and lighting can have a profound effect on the viewer’s emotions and interpretation of paintings, I can begin to see why Neoclassical paintings are considered didactic and detached (the comparison was also illuminating). Your writing has inspired my curiosity on Impressionism. I’d now like to look into differences between American and French Impressionism and this philosophy/method of en plein air. Your piece is fascinating.

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