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Robie Jean-Baptiste (1821-1910)
Jean Baptiste Robie was born on 11th November 1821 in Brussels. His father was an ironmonger on Rue Haute, a typical tradesman’s street in the Marolles district.
His early years were far from easy. Having lost his mother to cholera during an epidemic, he lived off small jobs, painting on metal for department stores and restaurants. Somebody saw him decorating the door of the “Hôpital Saint-Pierre” and offered him, free of charge, a place at the local Academy in Brussels from 1833 to 1837. It could therefore be said that he was self-taught.
His father married again, but Robie did not like his step-mother and left home at 16 to earn his livelihood as an artist in Paris, where he trained under the set-painter Filatre. However, life in the French capital was so miserable and difficult that he returned, seeking reconciliation with his father, who agreed that he continued painting in Brussels.
From 1838 to 1840, Robie studied at the Brussels Academy under the supervision of Old Master specialists JB van Eycken and Balthazar Tasson (1811-1890); he also befriended Theodore Fourmois (1814-1871).
In Robie’s Brussels, the art world was still influenced by the works of Jacques Louis David, who had fled from France to Brussels following the Revolution. In his early years, Robie made a modest income by painting portraits of Napoleon for British visitors, mainly as mementoes of the Battle of Waterloo, and by producing a large number of decorative works. Very early on, he started painting beautiful floral still lives and acquired a mastery of the rose. Although he painted landscapes, his speciality and recognition stemmed from the floral studies, of which he became one of the leading exponents of his generation.
E. De Taye describes his technique as “a solid though somewhat affected virtuosity, based on sound research of the picturesque and rich composition”. Moreover, he had an eye for subject matter: landscapes, walls in ruins, birds, all arranged as in a flash of inspiration. This is symptomatic of the painter’s subtle personality. Robie's paintings are characterized by the faithful use of color, clarity, perfectly painted accessories such as candlesticks, silver bowls and jugs. There is a rich, ornamental strength underlying the charm of his works.
He exhibited at the Brussels Salon in 1843, 1848, 1854, 1857, 1860, 1863, 1867 and 1875, where he received various awards: a gold medal in 1848 and a bronze medal in 1850. He also participated in the 1880 exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts marking the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Belgium as a nation state. He exhibited in Ghent in 1853 and in Antwerp in 1861 and 1863.
J.B. Robie won a reputation in France exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1863 and at the Universal Exhibition held in Paris in 1885. Robie spent most of the 1848- 1875 period in London, where he established his reputation on the international market by exhibiting at the Royal Academy.
Besides, he traveled extensively to Italy, Spain, England, Germany, France, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and India, where he was sure to find sunlight during the winter months.
He became well known as a travel writer, thanks to his Notes d’un Frileux.
He was appointed Knight of the Order of Leopold in 1861, Knight of the Legion d'Honneur and Officer of the Order of Leopold in 1869 and, finally, Commander of the Order of Leopold in 1867(1881?).
His longest stay abroad was in India between 1880 and 1881.
Robie wrote a number of travel books about his journeys. He described his apprenticeship in Fragment d’un voyage dans l’Inde et à Ceylan, Ière et IIème partie in 1883 (published in 1886), writing Les Débuts d’un Peintre in 1886, Paysage des Tropiques in 1890; other works include l’Art et la lumière, Le désert et le mirage, De l’importance du paysage dans l’art moderne, Notes et Croquis I et II. All these books make interesting and pleasant reading. He wrote as he painted: with charm, precision and clarity; he excelled in grasping the essential elements of the various environments he visited. Jean Robie had a poetical understanding of the subjects he painted and depicted flowers with love. He was correspondent of Beaux Arts in 1890 and Commissioner-Director of the Musées Royaux de Peinture et de Sculpture de l’Etat from 1899 to 1908.
His work allowed him to buy a handsome property with a very large garden, in which he created a beautiful park with his good friend and family neighbour Tasson-Snell. He liked to stay in his musée indien filled with mementoes from his trips. He often painted and traveled with Marie Tasson and her daughter Emma Washer, both of them painters and students of Robie. Marie died at 24. Robie never married.
He died peacefully on 8 December 1910 at the age of 89, having requested a quiet ceremony, and was cremated in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery. He refused to have any monument erected. Emma and her sister Jeanne Washer inherited Robie’s paintings and properties.
His works hang in museums in Brussels, Gent, Boston, Brooklyn, Hamburg, Lille, Minneapolis, Sydney and Uffizi in Florence
After many years, the descendants of Emma Washer-Crousse are trying to collect the artistic and private memories of this 19th Century Petit Maître de Bruxelles.
Submitted by Kathleen de Fays, Foundation Jean Robie