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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: Home Made: John N. Robinson’s Portraits

What does “home” mean, as we enter our seventh month of staying home to stop the coronavirus’s spread? Is home a source of solace, stress, or both, at times? The Anacostia Community Museum’s collection includes portraits that welcome us into the home of John N. Robinson, an artist who lived in Anacostia for over seventy years. Robinson made art at home about what he deeply cherished. His selection of subjects and settings, from family and community members to landscapes and lilacs, reflect his regard for people and places near him.

Pete, 1942, John N. Robinson. Collection of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Pete, 1942, John N. Robinson. Collection of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Home inspired Robinson to create. His family members often posed for portraits. The resulting images portray the sitters as well as their relationship with the artist. For example, this portrait of Robinson’s son, Pete, radiates connection between parent and child. The viewer learns that the Robinson home is a place where individuals can be truly seen. Decades later, the artist confirmed his perceptive depiction of the smiling toddler, writing “…my youngest son, his personality hasn’t changed, he’s still happy-go-lucky.”

Robinson’s respect, almost reverence, for his subjects also extends outside of his family. One of his most celebrated portraits depicts a woman named Maude Jones, who sat for him several Sundays at his home. Robinson noted that Jones “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.” In the oil painting, Jones appears to be at home, in dual senses. She sits comfortably and as if she is reading in her own living room.

Reading the Bible (Maude Jones), 1940, John N. Robinson. Collection of Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Reading the Bible (Maude Jones), 1940, John N. Robinson. Collection of Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Literal threads linking these portraits can be found in the furnishings. Jones sits in the floral upholstered chair pictured behind Pete. The colorful carpet also recurs in the paintings. Like the elegant rug, home offers grounding as well as beauty for Robinson, who recognized the everyday as a renewable resource for sparking creativity. He once commented, “Our house is surrounded by lilacs, and I got in the habit of painting them every year since we moved in over forty years ago.”

Finally, Robinson’s artwork shows us another portrait, one of the painter himself. He identified foremost as an artist, though his primary income came from working as a cook at nearby St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for over thirty years. Born in 1912 in Georgetown, he moved to Anacostia in the late 1920s. He began to paint at age twelve and briefly studied art with Professors James V. Herring and James A. Porter at Howard University. His portraits documented daily life in Washington, D.C. and won acclaim in an era when few galleries exhibited artwork by African Americans. Robinson also participated in outdoor art fairs held in D.C. parks, and he was a member of the D.C. Artist Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to art education. In 1994, he passed away at the age of 82.

An object crafted at home, but, more so, with care, takes on the special quality of being homemade. In this sense, Robinson’s finely honed portraits epitomize “homemade.” As we head into a new definition of being “home for the holidays,” one way to honor Robinson’s legacy is by crafting a portrait of someone or something in your home. To learn more about John N. Robinson and creating your own portrait, visit the related Smithsonian Learning Lab, Home Made: Portraits of Family and Community by Washington, D.C. Artist John N. Robinson.

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