John N. Robinson, 82, the Anacostia painter who spent more than 60 years meticulously depicting his quiet life in Southeast Washington, died Monday at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. He had had a stroke.
Robinson, who worked for more than 30 years in the kitchens at St. Elizabeths Hospital, earned his art world reputation late in his career. "I guess I'm just not pushy enough to succeed at things," he said.
His first important one-man show was organized jointly by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Anacostia Museum in 1976. His last, an extensive retrospective, was on view a year ago at the Washington Project for the Arts. His works are in the collections of the National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Howard University and The Washington Post Co.
His pieces are hymns to the ordinary. Intimate and accurate, they tend to be close studies of small domestic wonders -- of fluorescent light reflected on a waxed linoleum floor, or his children in the dining room, or lilacs glimpsed in spring through the raindrops on a windowpane.
He seldom tried his hand at his era's abstract styles or dealt in ideologies. Instead, he mostly painted what he felt at what he saw -- his affection for his garden, his devotion to his wife. He might be called a realist if his pictures weren't so often warmed by gratitude and gentleness.
The painter was born on Feb. 18, 1912, on "Holy Hill" in Georgetown, and his childhood was bleak. His mother died when he was 8, and his father disappeared.
Robinson, who was raised by his grandparents near 37th and Prospect streets NW, did not finish junior high school. Instead he went to work, sometimes caddying at the Burning Tree and Congressional country clubs, and sometimes dusting cars at night at the Key Bridge Garage. The drawings that he made on scraps of paper found there, mostly cast-off time-clock cards, were noticed by a chauffeur and brought to the attention of James Porter at Howard University, who then offered the 17-year-old a free semester of art instruction. That was the extent of Robinson's formal training.
But he'd already found his style, much of it derived from magazine illustrations and the canvases he'd studied in Washington museums.
During the Depression, Robinson joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1936, he was hired as a cook at St. Elizabeths, where he worked until retiring as kitchen supervisor in 1970.
Many of his initial patrons were his fellow employees there. During the 1940s, Robinson also exhibited regularly at the outdoor art fairs in Lafayette Square (where he won seven cash prizes) and painted portrait backdrops (with floral urns and sweeping stairs) for the Capitol Photo Studios of Anacostia.
He also painted exceptional portraits. One of his best depicts Maud Jones, who sold newspapers at 14th Street and New York Avenue NW. "She was obsessed with having her portrait painted with a Bible," the painter remembered in 1976, "so I invited her to my house, and she came for several Sundays and sat. Before I finished the portrait, she disappeared and I never saw her again."
Robinson's sitters are never types. They're never "the woman," or "the worker," they're always individuals. His own face, ceaselessly inquisitive, appears often in his pictures. So does that of his wife, Gladys (the Robinsons celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary on Sept. 1).
But his most characteristic subject may be the little Anacostia house -- with its long hillside views and lovingly tended garden -- where the painter worked and lived.
In the 1970s, Robinson was appointed to the D.C. Commission on the Arts. In 1978, he joined scholar David Driskell and National Collection of Fine Arts director Joshua Taylor in jurying "Exhibition '78," a survey of contemporary work by African American painters. Robinson continued to paint until just before his death.
He is survived by his wife and five children, John N. Robinson Jr. of Lanham, Robert E. Robinson of Roy, Utah, Ronald Robinson of Washington, Blanche V. Harris of Wellingboro, N.J., and Betty Anne Boone of Detroit.
John N. Robinson, 82, the Anacostia painter who spent more than 60 years meticulously depicting his quiet life in Southeast Washington, died Monday at Greater Southeast Community Hospital after suffering a stroke. Robinson, who worked for many years at St. Elizabeths Hospital, gained his art world reputation late in life.