John N. Robinson, 81 -- who's never made it big, who never hit it rich, who worked for 34 years in the kitchens of St. Elizabeths -- is the gentlest of painters. But his gentleness is steel-strong. By the time you leave his retrospective, which opened last night at the Washington Project for the Arts, you'll know the colors of his bedroom, the flowers of his garden, his wife, Gladys, and his kids. What you will not know is where he found his unshakable serenity, his gratitude and grace.
Born in segregated Washington, on "Holy Hill" in Georgetown, he grew up black and poor. His mother died when he was 8, his father disappeared. He never finished high school, he lived through the Depression. Ideologues who view American society as a place of battle, the oppressed vs. their oppressors, might view him as a victim. You might expect him to bewail. Instead he lights his art with praise.
Robinson's sort of realism, accurate and intimate, has long been out of fashion. He's never bent his work toward cubism, surrealism or later fashionable styles; nor has he dug for antique roots, importing his imagery from sub-Saharan Africa. Robinson prefers depicting what he sees -- the hills of Anacostia glimpsed through white lace curtains, cars parked on the street, his children, their erector sets, the Christmas decorations attached to his front door.
Robinson, whose oldest drawings here are from the 1920s, whose newest works are from 1993, has always liked the shine of things -- the subtly differing glows of polished oak in sunshine, Formica in fluorescent light, glassware, waxed linoleum. When he looks out toward the river, he doesn't show us only the mist on the horizon, but the raindrops on the windowpane. The mirror is his favorite tool, especially the mirror of his exceptional self-portraits, but not that mirror only: He uses glass to multiply his face by his possessions, the easel in his studio by a glimpse of his back yard. When you leave his show you'll feel that you've been into his home.
Many years from now, when scholars seek to know the dailiness of Washington circa 1930-93, they might look into these paintings. Our galleries are filled these days with tracts and free inventions. But who else lets us see, half as well as Robinson, those gray chenille bedspreads, radiator covers, cakes cooling in the kitchen, the friendly ordered clutter of a working person's home?
When Robinson was 17, his grandfather, the night watchman at the old Key Bridge Garage, found the teenager a job dusting cars at night. After work, and during breaks, Robinson would sketch on the papers he found there, mostly time clock cards. He'd draw portraits of Jack Johnson, the great African American prizefighter, or draperies or skulls. Some of these first timecard works are hanging in his show.
Then Robinson got a break: A white chauffeur saw his drawings, borrowed a selection and showed them to his sister, who in turn brought them to the attention of James V. Herring at Howard University. Herring was impressed. So too was James Porter, the best art teacher at Howard. In exchange for janitorial work, which he rarely had to do, Robinson was granted a semester's worth of Porter's art instruction.
"You can compare him with Audubon, who studied, at most, one month with Jacques-Louis David," said Jacob Kainen, who met Robinson in the '40s. "Something stuck."
Between 1934 and 1940, Robinson joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, took the cook's job at St. E's, married Gladys Washington, became the father of six children -- and painted every chance he could.
By 1937, he'd already found his style. Some of it was drawn from pictures in museums, and from illustrations in magazines. He also must have looked with care at various "American Scene" paintings, especially Thomas Hart Benton's with their rhythmic, rolling lines. Though never a radical innovator, his style was his own. His honesty, his clarity, his lack of affectation were there from the beginning. When you look at his self-portraits (the oldest on display is from 1937), something in his proud, scrutinizing glance reaches out and grabs you. There's a person looking back.
Sometimes, on weekends, Robinson would earn a little money doing "minute portraits," at 50 cents apiece, on Lafayette Square. But most of his models were members of his family. "Sarge" (1938) is a portrait of his grandfather, Ignatius Barton, a man who had no use for art, who considered it a "waste of time." The stern old soldier is dressed in his 1890s cavalry uniform, resplendent with gold braid and military medals.
By 1945, Robinson was painting far more complex pictures. "Mr. and Mrs. Ignatius Barton (Portrait of My Grandparents)" is a kind of "Anacostia Gothic." In this extraordinary canvas, the presence of the sitters is balanced by the setting -- the flowers in the wallpaper, the cracks in the linoleum and especially the round parlor table, ponderous and polished, which, tilting toward the viewer, seems about to hurl the old folks out into the room.
Robinson, in those days, was also painting life-size backdrops for Anacostia's Capitol Photo Studios. One of them is glimpsed, behind the smiling artist, in a photo in the catalogue. It's an opulent interior with upholstered furniture, flower-laden urns and, sweeping into fantasy, a grand and shining stair.
Another telling picture depicts James V. Herring in the Barnett-Aden Gallery, which Herring and his housemate, Alonzo Aden, opened here in 1930 in their tidy house on Randolph Place NW. Herring -- whose cuff links were of diamonds, whose suits were snowy white -- insisted he be portrayed seated at his specially designed round imported desk. The painting stars that desk. It's the most pompous object in the show.
Herring loved painting in part for its luxury. Robinson is different. He doesn't paint to escape his life, but to get into it.
That is nowhere felt more clearly than in "Reclining Woman," a portrait of his wife reading in their bedroom from 1952. She is utterly at ease, with a folded woolen blanket underneath her arm, and a book of reproductions on the bed before her. The picture has three mixing themes. Delicacy is one of them: The subtlety of her glance is equaled by the fineness of the lace curtain behind her. Sensuality is another: The smooth curves of the bed board, her eyebrows and her lips, of the fabrics and the open book, all seem to dance together. That delicacy, that sensuousness, somehow wind together to weave what one remembers most -- the painter's adoration.
Robinson never objectifies his subjects. His black people aren't "the African American," his women aren't "the woman." He doesn't tell us if he's particularly devout. He doesn't paint Bible scenes, and although that puffed-up pillow behind his baby daughter suggests a pair of fleecy wings, he doesn't paint angels either. But it is clear he somehow sees the holy in the littlest of things. There's a sweetheart of a drawing here, in pencil and unfinished, of the painter in his studio. Though the only color seen is of springtime through the window, every jar on every shelf is treated with devotion. The pictures of John Robinson are both humble and exalted. He's a lovely, modest painter. He makes religious art.
John N. Robinson: JNR will remain at the WPA, 400 Seventh St. NW, through Nov. 20.