Profile: John N. Robinson (1912-1994)

John N. Robinson was an African-American artist who lived and worked in Washington, D.C. He made realist paintings showing the people and places of his family home, his neighborhood, and the city in which he lived. Called “quiet and conscientious” and praised for works of “sincerity and humility,” he was particularly noted for portraits that showed his sitters in a way that successfully revealed their individual character. A critic for Washington Post characterized his paintings as “hymns to the ordinary” and said they were “warmed by gratitude and gentleness.

Early life and training

Robinson was born in Washington, D.C., on February 18, 1912. Eight years later he and his four siblings were effectively orphaned when their mother died and their father abandoned the family. Adopted by his maternal grandparents, he attended public schools, but dropped out before completing junior high. While still in school he began to make small paintings while doing part-time evening work in a nearby automotive service station where his grandfather was a night watchman. Having seen some of these paintings, the chauffeur of one of the station’s clients borrowed a few and showed them to his sister. She showed them to an acquaintance, James V. Herring, then head of the art department at Howard University, and he arranged for Robinson to study under a Howard art teacher, James A. Porter, in return for light cleaning chores. Financial need kept Robinson from working with Porter as long was he wished, but, as he later said, “what I learned at Howard under Professors Herring and Porter was the basis of my efforts in art.” After resuming both day and evening jobs, he nonetheless continued to paint, as he later said, whenever and wherever he could, “painting everything from church murals to door decorations.” He made his first mural when he was 17, a depiction of Christ at Gethsemane, in a church in Anacostia, where his grandparents had moved in 1929. This commission led to others, all within the African-American neighborhoods of the city.

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