Robert William Vonnoh (1858-1933)

Robert William Vonnoh (1858-1933)

“In his landscapes, Mr. Vonnoh seems to the writer at his best, especially in such well-known works as ‘Old Bridge at Grez,’ ‘November Morning – France,” and the series of smaller works, notably several sketches – all marked by tender sentiment, charming atmospheric effect and delicate delicious color.” [1]

[1] “The Vonnohs at Montross’s,” American Art News. December 20, 1913, Vol. 12, No. 11, p. 6 (JBT)

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Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1858, Robert William Vonnoh moved with his parents to the Boston area and was only five when his father was killed during the Civil War. During his teenage years, he worked for a lithography firm while taking classes at the Boston Free Drawing School and was accepted into the rigorous training program at the Massachusetts Normal Art School in 1875. Upon graduation four years later, he taught at the Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, as well as the Boston Free Drawing School, but soon endeavored to further his education abroad and enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1880. The curriculum at Julian’s focused on strong drawing and a clear understanding of rendering forms using dark and light values, and Vonnoh excelled in his work, eventually exhibited a portrait of a fellow student at the Paris Salon in 1883. He returned to Boston that same year and in 1884 showed the portrait at the Boston Art Club to glowing reviews, thereby launching a successful portrait career while continuing to teach at both the Cowles Art School and the Boston Museum School.

In 1886, Vonnoh married Grace Farrell, the daughter of a local merchant, and during their honeymoon in France he made his first visit to Grez-sur-Loing, an artists’ colony in the countryside south of the capital. Here he came into his own as an artist, experimenting with Impressionist color and brushwork while painting out-of-doors, far from the formal constraints of his teaching and portrait work. The verdant landscape and quietude of Grez offered a plethora of material and after four happy years Vonnoh returned to Boston and exhibited his French paintings at Williams and Everett Gallery, noting in the catalogue his inspiration: “In all cases [I have] worked with a definite purpose to interpret as directly and simply as possible the truths of Nature, not in a literal sense, but solely with reference to color sentiment and artistic impression.”[1] Vonnoh’s paintings reflect the dichotomy faced by many American Impressionists. On the one hand, in his landscapes, florals and studies from nature, Vonnoh made use of an Impressionist vocabulary of intense vibrant colors and free flowing brushwork. On the other hand, in his portraiture, he capably depicted solid, three-dimensional forms in neutral colors, albeit with a fluid, painterly technique.

In the fall of 1891, Vonnoh began teaching painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and from this time forward was hugely successful as a portrait artist, receiving hundreds of commissions, mostly from men. He resigned from the Academy in 1896 to focus primarily on portraiture, and began summering in Rockland Lake, New York, before moving there in 1899. That same year, Grace Vonnoh passed away after a long illness and Robert married sculptor Bessie Potter, whom he first met in Chicago in 1893. They moved to New York City and summered in Old Lyme, Connecticut, another popular artists’ colony for the American Impressionists, and Vonnoh was finally able to return to Grez in 1907, where he stayed for the next four years. Finding his favorite painting grounds unchanged and as inspiring as ever, Vonnoh was rejuvenated, writing to Bessie in New York: “I am very busy working morning till night as the effects here are very fine & I have the work fever on again.”[2] Sixty-five examples of the work he produced during this time were exhibited at the Galleries Georges Petit in Paris in early 1911, with titles revealing Vonnoh’s increasing interest in capturing a certain time of day or weather effects.

Vonnoh returned to New York at the close of the Paris show but continued visiting Grez annually up until the outbreak of the First World War, and resumed his travels in 1922. He lived on and off in France until passing away in Nice in 1933. Vonnoh participated in the Pennsylvania Academy’s annual exhibitions for over fifty years, and also showed with the Boston Art Club, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Academy of Design, which elected him a full member in 1906. Additionally, he took part in and was awarded prizes at a number of World’s Fairs, including the Paris Expositions in 1889 and 1900, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901, and the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Today examples of both his dynamic portraiture and Impressionist landscapes can be found in a number of important museum collections, namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among several others.

References: Gerdts, William H. American Impressionism (NY: Abbeville, 1984); Hill, May Brawley. Gréz Days: Robert Vonnoh in France, exhibition catalogue (NY: Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 1987); “Robert W. Vonnoh: Painter of Men” by Harold Donaldson Eberlein. Arts and Decoration 2 (Sept. 1912): 381-83ff; “Vonnoh’s Half Century” International Studio 77 (June 1923) 231-33.‚Äč

[1] Paintings by Robert Vonnoh (Williams and Everett Gallery, Boston, 1891), n.p.

[2] Undated postcard from Vonnoh to Bessie, postmarked July 26, 1908. Courtesy of Mrs. Robert Rowe Thompson (see Hill, May Brawley. Gréz Days: Robert Vonnoh in France, exhibition catalogue (NY: Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 1987), p. 43, note 44.

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