Growing up in Washington, DC, John N. Robinson (1912-1994) painted whenever he could. He continued to visit what he called "my secret place" to paint portraits of local people, lilacs, and landscapes throughout his life. Art critic Paul Richard called Robinson's paintings "hymns to the ordinary."1
From "A Museum for the Community," a program in the series, "Here at the Smithsonian." Accession 00-132, Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
While Robinson drew on daily life for his subjects, his brushstrokes rendered them extraordinary. His paintings won acclaim when few galleries exhibited artwork by African Americans. In the 1940s, a portrait of his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Barton, won an award at the fourth Exhibition of Paintings at Atlanta University.
He also exhibited at the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, DC, a rare racially-integrated art gallery co-founded by James V. Herring and Alzono J. Aden in 1943. Washington, DC artist Alma Thomas, who also exhibited at Barnett-Aden, was known for greeting visitors at the door. Robinson memorialized the gallery in First Gallery (Alonzo Aden), on view as part of Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, a Phillips Collection exhibition that opened in 2021.
Downtown parks also offered racially inclusive art spaces for art shows, such as those sponsored by the Times-Herald newspaper in Lafayette and Franklin parks. In his 1946 painting, Outdoor Art Fair, the artist's framed artworks are on display to the left of the monument to Marquis de Lafayette, including Reading the Bible (Portrait of Maude Jones). Maude Jones, Robinson recounts, “sold newspapers on New York Avenue and came up around the Outdoor Art Fairs; she wanted to have herself painted with the Bible but disappeared before I completed this portrait.”2
Robinson depicts Reading the Bible (Portrait of Maude Jones) [left] among his paintings on display in Outdoor Art Fair [right, detail]. Reading the Bible (Portrait of Maude Jones), John N. Robinson, 1940. Oil on canvas board. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
At the fairs, Robinson earned $.35 for making "minute sketches" in charcoal, similar to his depiction of artist Louis Haynes in the painting's center. "At one time I had it down to seven minutes," he later reflected.3 He also won prizes for his artwork, sold paintings, and became friends with "artists like Pietro Lazzari, Jack Perlmutter, and Jacob Kainen, who got me into shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art long before blacks were welcomed there."4
Years later, Robinson recalled the presence of his "wonderful mother-in-law," Hortense Washington, at the fairs:
When I used to exhibit down at Lafayette Park, the old Times-Herald exhibitions, and often times…you carry your works down, but you had to have someone to sit with them so they wouldn’t get away. She used to go down and sit all day long with my works.5
John Nathaniel Robinson was born on "Holy Hill" in Georgetown, a neighborhood in Washington, DC's northwest quadrant, in 1912. Robinson's mother passed away when he was around eight years old. When his father disappeared several years later, his grandparents, Anna Barton and Ignatius Barton, stepped in to care for Robinson and his siblings.
Robinson attended Montgomery Elementary and Francis Junior High schools. Like all African American public schools within the District of Columbia's segregated system, they offered art instruction to every student through an innovative curriculum designed by Thomas W. Hunster (1851-1929).
Though Robinson had to leave school early for financial reasons, a childhood job led to formal art classes at Howard University under the auspices of professors James V. Herring and James A. Porter.6 This training, while not as long as Robinson wished, served as "the basis of my efforts in art."7 Robinson would later exhibit at the Howard University Gallery of Art and at the aforementioned Barnett-Aden Gallery, founded by Professor Herring and his partner, Alonzo Aden, curator of the Howard University Gallery of Art.
In "An Autobiographical Sketch" for his 1976 retrospective catalogue, Robinson writes, “In 1929 my grandparents moved to a lot they owned in Anacostia to the area known as Garfield (in far southeast Washington, DC), where I still live. It is here that I began to paint in earnest."8 Robinson’s art emanated from a strong sense of family, community, and, especially, place—from the hills of Anacostia to the lilacs in his yard.
Robinson always found time to paint and identified foremost as an artist. His primary income for over thirty years came from working at nearby St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he was promoted to supervisory cook. Supplementing his salary by painting, including backdrops for Capitol Photo Studios and murals in churches, helped Robinson and his spouse, Gladys Ernestine Robinson, raise six children.
Robinson first exhibited at the Anacostia Community Museum in Sixteen Washington Artists, held in November 1968. (The museum opened in September 1967.) He remained involved with the museum throughout his life, including with the District of Columbia Art Association (DCAA), a group of artists in metropolitan Washington, DC dedicated to ensuring that art continued to be a creative, living force in their communities.
John N. Robinson (l), David Driskell (c), and Joshua Taylor (r) serve as jurors for the DC Art Association's 1978 exhibition. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
In a 1991 oral history interview, artist and art educator Georgia Mills Jessup credited DCAA with bringing needed attention to many artists of color. Further, she noted that "everyone wanted to be involved" in DCAA after its first exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1969.9 The DCAA exhibition catalogues were critically important, in her view, because they featured artists and their résumés, exposure that eclipsed racism's hold on the art world.
Robinson served as a juror for DCAA's 1978 exhibition at the Museum. His solo retrospective debuted at the Anacostia Community Museum prior to its showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976. The museum also curated a joint exhibition with Robinson and lithographer Larry Frances Lebby in 1983. Its title, "Here, Look at Mine!," hailed from Robinson's portrait of eight of his eleven grandchildren.
Robinson "never attained the wider fame of [Sam] Gilliam or [Alma] Thomas," notes artist Keith Morrison, "but as Walter Hopps told me, 'He is one of the two or three first realist painters in the modern history of the City.'"10
Robinson embraced painting for its own sake. "I cannot, I feel, have any regrets about my accomplishments. What comes from art will just come. I don't feel any need to strive."11
1. Richard, Paul. "John Robinson, Noted Artist, Dies,” The Washington Post, 19 October 1994.
2. John N. Robinson: A Retrospective. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976, p. 24.
3. John N. Robinson: A Retrospective, p.14.
4. John N. Robinson: A Retrospective, p.14-15.
5. "Walk Thru Tour of the Exhibition with John N. Robinson" in "Here, Look at Mine!" Exhibition Records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Robinson's portrait of Hortense Washington, included in the exhibition, prompted this memory.
6. Professor James V. Herring founded and chaired Howard's Department of Art and Architecture. Professor James A. Porter eventually succeeded Professor Herring as chair and director of Howard University's Gallery of Art.
7. John N. Robinson: A Retrospective, p.13.
8. John N. Robinson: A Retrospective, p.13-14.
9. Oral History Interview with Georgia Mills Jessup, ACM 25th Anniversary Oral History Project, 17 July 1991, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Georgia Mills Jessup became the Museum's first Artist-in-Residence in 1968.
10. Morrison, Keith. Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970. Washington, DC: Washington Project for the Arts, 1985.
11. John N. Robinson: A Retrospective, p. 15.
Campbell, Crispin Y. "An Artist's Unfinished Work," The Washington Post. 1 December 1982.
"Home Made: John N. Robinson's Portraits," Anacostia Community Museum in The Washington Informer, 11 October 2020.
Home Made: Portraits of Family and Community by John N. Robinson, Smithsonian Learning Lab.
Minter, Alyse. "John N. Robinson, His Life and Work," Smithsonian Archives, 9 September 2014.
Morrison, Keith. Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970. Washington, DC: Washington Project for the Arts, 1985.
Richard, Paul. "John Robinson, Noted Artist, Dies,” The Washington Post, 19 October 1994.
—"Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood," The Washington Post, 17 September 1993.
Select Exhibitions (oldest to newest)
John N. Robinson: A Retrospective, Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, May 9 - June 13, 1976; Corcoran Gallery of Art, June 18-July 30, 1976.
“Here, Look at Mine!” | John N. Robinson and Larry Francis Lebby Art Show, Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Washington, DC, November 14, 1982–February 28, 1983.
John N. Robinson: JNR, Washington Project for the Arts, September 16-November 20, 1993.
Select Exhibition Catalogs
The Barnett-Aden Collection. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press for the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in cooperation with the Barnett-Aden Gallery, 1974.
Carr, Carolyn Kinder and Ellen G. Miles, eds. Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press in cooperation with Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
John N. Robinson: A Retrospective. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.