Today, William S. Robinson is known as an Old Lyme artist who was part of the intimate circle of Florence Griswold.
Born in East Gloucester, Massachusetts, long before there was an artists’ colony, he graduated from Boston’s Massachusetts Normal School in 1884. For the next four years he taught at the Maryland Institute, then continued his art studies in Paris at the Académie Julian (1889-90) under Benjamin Constant and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. Robinson was with Eugene Vail, Robert Reid, Louis Paul Dessar and others at Etaples (1895-1902), where the “fisher folk provided picturesque and interesting models.” (De Witt McClellan Lockman Papers, roll 502, AAA). Back in the United States, Robinson began to exhibit his works at the National Academy of Design in 1891. During the following year he taught at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and he was also an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1892-99), the Teachers College of Columbia University (1894-1904), and at the NAD (1920-34).
In 1897, Robinson became a member of the Salmagundi Club, as well as an Associate at the National Academy. He won an Honorable Mention at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, with Early Evening (unlocated). In the following year, Robinson won another Honorable Mention at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where Early Evening appeared again, along with A Village Street. The latter was criticized by Charles Caffin (1901-A): he indicated how Robinson’s formula “has become of more account to the painter than the truth it is designed to express.” For a third time, he exhibited his popular canvas, Early Evening with Evening before a Storm at the St. Louis Universal Exposition in 1904. Robinson maintained an extremely active exhibition schedule, showing works at the National Academy between 1891 and 1934, at the Carnegie Institute (1897-1922), at the Pennsylvania Academy (1892-1924), at the Art Institute of Chicago (1891-1909), at the Society of Independent Artists (1917 only), and at the Corcoran Gallery between 1907 and 1923. In 1927, he exhibited sixty-one paintings at the Knowlton House, Connecticut College.
As early as 1902, William Robinson discovered Old Lyme and in 1914 became one of the founding members of the Lyme Art Association, of which he was president. He was also president of the American Watercolor Society (1914-20). Robinson spent every summer at Old Lyme between 1905 and 1920 (Kienholz, 1998, p. 172). While at the Florence Griswold House, “Wild Bill” Robinson painted a panel in the dining room (north wall). It has been noted that Robinson’s palette lightened up and that the artist moved more toward impressionism as a result of the Old Lyme experience. But while Robinson’s Autumn Landscape (Florence Griswold Museum) features purple shadows, there is no true broken color. This new impressionist orientation had been initiated at Old Lyme in 1903 after the arrival of Childe Hassam, who “usurped” the leadership from Henry Ward Ranger.
Robinson later visited Monhegan Island, where he painted the forceful and dynamic Monhegan Headlands in 1911 (National Museum of American Art). The rocks are handled in a broad application of elongated brushstrokes but with very little color. The painting confirms that Robinson was more interested in tone, pattern, and design in the rocks rather than what effects could be achieved from the sunlight as it illuminates forms. The fact that Robert Henri and George Bellows were also on the island that August suggests influence from the new modern realist movement. Robinson’s Laurel Bloom, however, exhibited at the NAD in 1926, demonstrates thicker impasto and broken brushwork as well as a scintillating surface texture: still primarily an impressionist aesthetic. Around 1921, Robinson began staying at Old Lyme all year round until Florence passed away in 1937. His many prestigious awards and exhibitions behind him, Robinson retired to Biloxi, Mississippi to spend his remaining years.