Robert Vonnoh


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(1858–1933). Painter. Known for portraits, figure studies, and outdoor views, he numbered among the first to introduce to the United States a style strongly indebted to French impressionism. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, as a small child Robert William Vonnoh moved to Roxbury (now part of Boston). He completed four years of training at Boston's Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art) in 1879 and two years later departed to study in Paris. He returned to Boston in 1883 but after four years embarked on a decisive sojourn in France. While residing in the artists' colony of Grèz-sur-Loing, south of Fontainebleau, he came to value immediate sensations and adopted the impressionists' colorful, broken brushwork. His close-up 1888 studies of a poppy field rival the optical intensity, casual organization, and uninhibited brushwork of Monet's Giverny flowerbeds. Yet, in many other works Vonnoh retained the disciplined compositional structure and solid masses of his traditional training. In a characteristic compromise, his large and joyous showpiece Coquelicots (Poppies), “In Flanders Field” (Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, c. 1890) juxtaposes clearly delineated figures with the more loosely rendered meadow they inhabit. Vonnoh returned to Boston in 1891 but soon accepted a teaching position at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he served as an influential teacher until the mid-1890s. (After 1918 he again taught there for several years.) Subsequently he resided primarily in New York but also spent periods elsewhere, particularly in France and in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He continued during summer escapes to paint landscapes, while during winters he specialized increasingly in portraits. His late landscapes, mostly painted in France, show greater restraint in color and brushwork. From the mid-1920s diminished eyesight curtailed his artistic activity. Vonnoh died in Nice, France.

In 1899 he married sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955). Known especially for graceful, intimate, small-scale bronzes, she specialized in themes of genteel domesticity centered on women and children. Born in St. Louis and raised in Chicago, Bessie Onahotema Potter began to study in 1886 with Lorado Taft, even before she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he taught. She also assisted with his decorations for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. In Paris in 1895, contact with Rodin reinforced the impressionistic approach to modeling she had already developed after seeing the Rodin-inspired bronzes of Italian-born Russian-American Paul Trubetskoy (1866–1938) at the Chicago World's Fair. She journeyed to Europe again in 1897 and after marriage accompanied her husband on his travels. Following his death, her activity as a sculptor tapered off. Remarried in 1948 to urologist Edward Keyes, she was again widowed the following year. After suffering a stroke, she was inactive in the three years before she died in New York. In Daydreams (1903), a characteristic bronze, two young ladies in flowing gowns suggesting Greek costume lounge on an Empire-style sofa, easily recognizable to contemporaries as a valuable antique. As they relax and perhaps dream together, one holds on her lap an open book, which presumably has sparked their reverie. Although the moment is static, Vonnoh's modeling provides life and warmth. In its depiction of a cultured lifestyle, her vision partakes of the American Renaissance. She also produced portraits, occasionally in marble. During the 1920s she worked frequently on a larger scale, producing life-size nude and draped figures that often figure as fountain or garden ornaments.

From The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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