The Secret of Marie

Marie CoverMy first encounter with American Impressionist artist Theodore Robinson happened in 2004, when I was staying in Giverny, France — just down the road from Monet’s famous gardens — at a B&B that had been an 18th-century water mill.

Although Robinson (1852-1896) had been dead for more than century, he seemed very much alive to me during my stay at the old moulin. The mill and its surroundings had been the setting for a number of Robinson’s paintings when he was a prominent figure in Giverny’s artists’ colony in the late 1800s. The B&B owner told me a story about Robinson and his connection to the moulin that intrigued me. In a lovely way, I sensed Robinson’s presence there.

In the decade that followed, I often thought about Robinson and read about his life and art. Born in Vermont, he grew up in Evansville, Wisconsin, and studied art at the Chicago Academy of Design (before it became the Art Institute). He pursued his painting career in New York and eventually in Paris. During his Giverny years, he was befriended and mentored by Monet.

As I learned more about Robinson, I became intrigued with his favorite model — a Parisian woman known only as Marie. A model for other Impressionist artists as well, including Edgar Degas, Marie featured in a number of Robinson’s paintings between 1885 and 1892. Her profile is distinctive — Robinson renders her upturned nose and protruding upper lip with the attention of a man who knew her well. Except for one portrait of her sitting in a chair and holding a violin, Robinson always painted her in profile, as if hiding her from curious eyes. They were lovers and spent time together in Giverny. There was gossip about a love child.


It wasn’t my intention to solve the mystery of Marie when I began work on this book. I’m fascinated by the way she dissolved into the mist of time after Robinson’s death in 1896 (he died of acute asthma at age 43), and I want her to enjoy her solace there.

That said, I love the thrill of the chase when I’m researching a story. I was intrigued by the photographs Robinson took of the subjects and settings for many of his paintings — one particular image of a woman standing by a tree had caught my eye. I was able to view the faded original, stored in the vault of the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago. You can imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered (under magnification) that this image is a previously unknown photo of Marie — and the first (now) known photo to fully show her face. I’m grateful that the Terra Foundation has given me permission to re-print this photo, along with five other Robinson images, in my book.

Theodore RobinsonThe Secret of Marie is an art-history mystery set in Monet’s Giverny that weaves a modern-day love story with the romantic tale of Theodore and Marie, who left an indelible mark, tinged with mystery, on the history of American Impressionism.

If you haven’t yet been to Giverny, consider adding it to your destination wish list. (It’s only an hour from Paris.) When you’re there — or if you’ve already been — I hope The Secret of Marie adds pleasure and insight to the experience.




  • cover art: Theodore Robinson, La Débâcle, 1892, The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, California
  • Theodore Robinson, Lady in Red, 1885, private collection
  • photo of Theodore Robinson sketching in France, undated