Theodore Robinson’s Angelus

An Illustrator's Inspiration

I began my research on Theodore Robinson’s Angelus (Figure 1) during the spring of my freshman year as a student in Tanya Sheehan’s Reading Images course (AR101W).  Researching the painting for a discourse analysis paper, I made interesting historical discoveries that allowed me to explore aspects of Robinson’s career that previously had been neglected or brushed over.  This summer I continued my project as a Mellon intern at the Colby College Museum of Art, and hope to produce an expanded essay on the subject for publication in American Art.

Figure 1: Theodore Robinson, Angelus, c. 1879. Oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 20 3/8 in. (77/47 cm x 51.75 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Nevil Ford, 1980.004.

Although later in his career he achieved considerable success as an impressionist under the influence of Claude Monet, in 1879, the year of his Angelus, Robinson was a novice American artist who supported himself through his work as an illustrator, and soon after, as a mural and architectural decorator.  Rather than following Monet’s impressionism, Robinson embraced Winslow Homer’s realism (Figures 2 and 3) in his four illustrations for the 1880 editions of the children’s magazine Harper’s Young People (Figures 4 and 5). Suzette (Figure 6), one of Robinson’s drawings for that magazine, illustrates the short story “Viola’s Sketch” by a Mrs. W. J. Hays.  That story’s depiction of bourgeois anxiety and escapism are emblematic of the period’s anti-modernism, “the recoil from an ‘overcivilized’ modern existence to more intense forms of physical or spiritual experience.”[1] Because it either inspired, or was inspired by, Suzette, Angelus, a 30 ½ inch by 20 ⅜ inch oil on canvas that hangs at the Colby College Museum of Art, changes our understanding of artists’ self-sustaining work as illustrators in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the significant ways in which those artists influenced, and were influenced by, the field of American illustration and literature.

    

Figure 2 (left): Spring Farm Work—Grafting, 1870. Wood engraving. Figure 3 (right): On the Stile, 1878. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on wove paper. National Gallery of Art, Landover, Maryland. Both works by Winslow Homer.

As people moved in large numbers from the countryside to the city following the Civil War, they were forced to adapt their lifestyles to a capitalist work ethic that demanded not only an accelerated pace of life, but also a revised sense of self.  Disillusioned with society’s mechanization, Protestants, who constituted the cultural hegemons of the period as moral and intellectual leaders of the American bourgeoisie, turned toward anti-modernism.[2] Seeking a “simpler life,” they emphasized the virtue of life on the land and the ennobling power of hard work, believing that the rural life was a path to moral regeneration.[3] In order to combat the almost unreal quality of mechanized labor and a thoroughly systematized existence, many members of the bourgeoisie began a quest for “real life,” intense experience became an end in itself, and the vacation cottage or rustic exurban home an ideal.

Contemporary American artists produced art that catered to the strained bourgeoisie.  As a result of the reality of expansive capitalism that impacted diverse areas of the economy, the American farmer, who now constituted an important point in the economic nexus, proved “indistinguishable from any other ordinary, dull American,” and therefore “not ‘peasant’ enough for art.”[4]  Instead, the French peasant, with her old-world archaism, served as the most moving symbol of the purity of preindustrial life.  Artists such as Jean-François Millet, William Morris Hunt, Claude Monet, and Theodore Robinson capitalized on the market for French peasants and landscapes, symbols of tradition and continuity in the face of the loss of familiar frames of reference, producing numerous paintings for an urban elite audience removed from the harsh realities of agricultural work.  Indeed, paintings such as Robinson’s Etude, which depicts a stolid peasant woman standing next to three large haystacks, and his Val D’arconville, which pictures a woman reading on a hill overlooking a picturesque rural town, demonstrate the purity and moral supremacy of the French countryside and its people, presenting a comforting scene for American viewers.

    

Figure 4 (left): Noon-time in the Meadow, 1880. Engraving for “How John Goodnow Got His Own Way” in the magazine Harper’s Young People. Figure 5 (right): Hetty and Jim, 1880. Engraving for “Hetty” in the magazine Harper’s Young People. Both works by Theodore Robinson.

Children’s literature espoused an image of the American countryside as uncorrupted, therapeutic, and moral.  Common tropes in the 1879/1880 editions of Harper’s Young People include the grit of colonists, the idealization of country life, the chaos of the city, the intrigue of faraway lands, and children’s innocence.  Of special focus, especially within W. J. Hays’s stories, was the rehabilitating transition from city to country, “the tale of jaded urban lives restored by country air.”[5] Because children, with their carefree and spontaneous nature, seemed removed from the anxiety and self-consciousness of the mechanized adult world, they became associated with the premodern and mythical, two qualities that were conflated.

Angelus is the perfect example of the overlap between children’s literature and “fine art” during the second half of the nineteenth century.  The anti-modernism implicit within children’s literature at the time often manifested itself in fine art through the medium of illustration, which provided artists ready-made sketches they developed into paintings sold to bourgeois clients.  Although the impact of illustrative work on their fine-art careers was profound, young artists such as Theodore Robinson, J. Alden Weir, and William Merritt Chase pursued illustration simply as a source of income to support their larger ambitions. The contributions of artists to children’s literature were similarly significant: illustrations marketed magazines successfully and also provided visual outlets for city children and their exhausted parents.  Thus illustration served as the crossroads between two cultural manifestations of anti-modern thought, namely children’s literature and fine art, and in that unique capacity influenced the artists who created it, the authors and art directors who utilized it, and the general public who consumed it.

Figure 6: Theodore Robinson, Suzette, 1880. Engraving for “Viola’s Sketch” in the magazine Harper’s Young People.

[1] Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920. University of Chicago Press, 1996. xiii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74–5.

[4] Burns, Sarah. Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture. Temple University Press, 1989. 225.

[5] Ibid., 240.