My journey with Theodore Robinson

by Rebecca Bricker on July 18, 2016

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During the past few months, I’ve enjoyed sharing the story of The Secret of Marie as I’ve traveled across the U.S. on a book tour that took me from southern California to the Chicago suburbs to Evansville, Wisconsin, and finally to New Jersey and New York City. It was wonderful seeing old friends and making new ones along the way. I’m deeply grateful for the kindness, enthusiastic support and hospitality shown to me by so many during my travels.

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The idea for this book came to me 12 years ago, during my first stay in Giverny, France, where Claude Monet spent the last half of his life. He immortalized his now-famous Giverny flower garden and lily pond in paintings that are treasured jewels of museum collections around the world. Today, more than 500,000 visitors come to see Monet’s house and gardens each year. I’ve been among them on my many visits to Giverny, as I immersed myself in the history of this bucolic village that was a flourishing artists’ colony at the turn of the last century.

waterhouse__and__dodd_sewing_by_the_river_12701232709188The Secret of Marie was inspired by what happened to me on that visit in 2004, when I discovered the work of American Impressionist painter Theodore Robinson, who became a close friend and correspondent of Monet’s. As I learned more about Robinson, I became intrigued with his relationship with his favorite model, known only as Marie.

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Although I had read excerpts from Robinson’s diaries in the course of my research, it was a thrill to see four of his original journals at the Frick Library in New York City, during my visit there in May. He writes very little about Marie, which adds to the mystery of their relationship. It seems theirs was a tortured romance that came with a painful decision not to marry. But happily, their friendship endured. After Robinson last saw Marie in Paris, in 1892, he corresponded with her and, in fact, received a letter from her just a few months before he died in 1896, of a severe asthma attack at the tragically young age of 43.

DSC04533 - Version 2A highlight of the book tour was my visit to Evansville, Wisconsin, where Robinson grew up. I had been in contact with local historian Ruth Ann Montgomery, whose Robinson research was considerable help to me in piecing together the timeline of his early life. She, in turn, introduced me to Kendall Schneider, also of Evansville, who is the president of the Theodore Robinson Society.

Kendall was an extraordinary host during my visit, showing me Evansville’s historic sites, including the house where Robinson lived (right) and the school he attended. We visited the local cemetery, where Robinson is buried. Next to the family tombstone is an easel, placed there by the Society’s artists’ group, which holds a plein-air painting competition every year in Robinson’s honor. In Impressionist style, the artists render their work out in the “open air,” in the countryside surrounding Evansville.

20160527_173403My Evansville hostess Heidi Carvin, who kindly offered me her guest room, was in the midst of planning the installation of a labyrinth at a local park, next to a former seminary where Robinson had gone to school as a boy (his father had been a Methodist minister). She was collecting donations for the labyrinth’s pavers at the time of my visit, and I was only too happy to contribute. She asked her donors for a word or phrase that people could meditate on as they walked the labyrinth. I chose SERENDIPITY.

Just my luck that Heidi is a master gardener. One of my hostess gifts to her was flower seeds from Monet’s garden to plant in her own garden. I’ve also asked her to plant some of those seeds at Theodore’s grave.

DSC05313The ultimate end to this journey came serendipitously just a few weeks ago when I was in Giverny at the same time Kendall was in Paris. He and his lovely wife Debbie came to Giverny for a couple of days and stayed at Moulin des Chennevières, a featured location in the book.

There was talk during Kendall’s visit of the possibility of Giverny and Evansville becoming sister cities. How wonderful that would be — a modern-day link between Monet and Robinson, one of the few American artists in Giverny whom Monet welcomed into his inner circle. I can imagine plein-air painters from Evansville coming to Giverny, following in Robinson’s footsteps, and painters from Giverny visiting Evansville, which is beautifully situated in the rolling farmland and woodlands of southern Wisconsin.

Before I left Giverny a few weeks ago, I had the delight of an off-road, four-wheel-drive tour by Jean-Pierre Guillemard, who was born in Giverny and has lived there much of his life. His family has lived in Giverny for four generations. (His youngest brother Gérard, along with Gérard’s wife Stéphanie, own the Moulin des Chennevières.) Jean-Pierre and Gérard’s grandmother knew Monet personally — he was her next-door neighbor.

Val-D-ArconvilleJean-Pierre drove me on barely passable tracks through hillsides surrounding the village where Impressionist artists painted more than a century ago. He took me to the meadow of wildflowers where Robinson likely painted Marie as she read a book, in an exquisite painting called Val d’Arconville, which I recently saw at the Art Institute of Chicago. And to end the tour, Jean-Pierre showed me a patch of poppies in a wheat field near the Seine. I almost expected to see Monet with his easel there. :)

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This has been a wonderful journey that has come full circle. I feel blessed by serendipity and the kindness of friends and strangers. I’m especially grateful to the village of Giverny, to which I’ve dedicated my book, for so graciously welcoming me during my many visits there.

I’ve often wondered what Theodore Robinson would think of all this. An American woman telling his story and speculating about his romance with Marie. But I hope he wouldn’t mind too much. I’ve pleasantly sensed his presence at many turns as I’ve worked on this book.

One of the mysteries that presented during my research was the location of the Giverny garden where Robinson photographed Marie. The first known photo of her face is revealed on the last page of the book, as she stands next to a fruit tree with a bent limb, in a garden with a high stone wall.

On a suggestion from Giverny’s mayor Claude Landais whom I met this spring, I went to the far end of the village, past the church where Monet is buried, and walked up an incline that gave me a view of a garden hidden by a high stone wall. I walked down a lane to get another view of it, standing on my tip-toes. In the corner of the garden, there’s an old gnarled fruit tree, similar in its growth habit to the tree in the photo.

I looked up at the late afternoon sky and smiled. Theo, is this the place? Give me a sign.

As I walked away, I turned around to take one last look. And suddenly the forsythia behind the garden wall caught the sunlight. It lasted just a few minutes and then the sun dropped below the clouds.

I think it was a sign. 😉

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Theodore Robinson gravestone

 

 

Credit: book-signing photo — Dave Neesley

{ 11 comments }

Rich Nuckolls July 18, 2016 at 1:48 am

Very nicely written and presented, Rebecca. I read this post and am writing my reply while sitting at the desk in the Margaurite room at Moulin des Chennevieres. Sharing the wonder of this magical place through Art Colony Giverny has become our passion and privilege – nay, our duty or calling in life.

It is so inspiring to us to read of your adventures here, too, and to share in that sense of wonder and awe.

Rebecca Bricker July 18, 2016 at 1:58 am

I have goosebumps thinking of you reading this post and writing to me from THAT room, where this story began. Thank you, “Tom” (and dear “Alyce”), for walking me to the gate that first night. 😉 It is a joy and privilege to peek around the curtain and see life as it once was in Giverny. Thank you both for including me in one of your painting expeditions, my first “plein-air” experience. What FUN!!

Jackie Lamothe July 18, 2016 at 3:59 pm

What a wonderful journey, my friend!

Rebecca Bricker July 18, 2016 at 4:18 pm

It truly has been amazing. Thanks for enjoying it with me.

Il Mio Sogno July 18, 2016 at 9:56 pm

I’m your little cheerleader. I loved hearing how the characters developed over dinner in a piazza in Firenze, and I love how you have been huge in bringing awareness to this relatively unknown artist, and so proud of you for all the homework and footwork you have done and continue to do including reaching out to the museums and getting their blessings and support. I know it’s required a ton of self-disclipline and work to keep going forward on this project, but what a wonderful thing you have accomplished. I think “Theo” would be delighted with all you have achieved.

Rebecca Bricker July 19, 2016 at 12:17 am

Thank you for helping dream with me and for listening to my tales at dinner of these wonderful characters who sat around my writing table every day. You were so tolerant when I ignored my phone and email messages for hours as I time traveled and wandered in the Land of Fiction. You’re such a wonderful friend, always cheering me on. Grazie x 1,000,000! :)

alyce July 19, 2016 at 2:24 pm

Yes Rebecca, what a wonderful journey…..I am very proud of you too!!! I so enjoyed reading your book…Since I have never been, you have taken me there….. I can’t wait to hear stories this coming Wednesday!

Rebecca Bricker July 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Thank you, Alyce! I’d love to go with you to Giverny someday. You’d love it there. :)

Kathy July 19, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Oh, why do my eyes fill with tears at seeing you turn back and catch the color through the sunlight…
I have loved being a bystander of your journey and loved following your story that has unfolded so magically. You have introduced me to a time and slice of an artist life I have appreciated. It feels tragic and yet filled with beauty and love.
Grazie mille.

Rebecca Bricker July 20, 2016 at 12:00 am

I, too, have had tears, standing at his grave, reading his journals, seeing his photos (the originals) of Marie in a museum vault. When the forsythia lit up, I was grinning through tears. Thank you, Kathy, for appreciating the beauty and love that this journey has shown me. I’m delighted to know this story has touched you as well.

Becky November 9, 2016 at 11:07 pm

I’m finally reading your book and had to come back to this post I remembered reading in the summer. It now has much more meaning :) I’m loving the story and your writing style once again ! Looking forward to the next novel even before I’m done with this one!

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