History And Context
Although Robinson preferred to execute his landscapes en plein-air—out of doors—he created his figure compositions with the aid of preliminary studies, usually photographs of carefully staged compositions that he had begun to take in the early 1880s. "Painting directly from nature is difficult," he noted. "[A]s things do not remain the same, the camera helps to retain the picture in your mind." Robinson viewed the photograph as a means to capture exactly the world around him; the convenience of being able to work in his studio (he suffered from severe asthma) and the financial benefit of reducing the number of hours spent with a model appealed to him as well. Even when Robinson adopted aspects of impressionism in the late 1880s, he continued to use photographs as preliminary studies.
Two in a Boat, painted during the summer of 1891 in Giverny, represents two women reading while lounging in a skiff floating on the Seine or Epte rivers. The scene retains the spontaneous freshness and lively brushwork of his pure landscapes, despite the carefully staged composition. The relationship between Two in a Boat and the photograph from which it derived offers a vivid example of Robinson's painting process. He lightly scored the photograph and the canvas with graphite and sketched in the composition, using the grid as a measure. The grid and underdrawing are visible throughout, because Robinson's pink primed canvas was left exposed in many areas, particularly in the lines defining the interior of the occupied boat and the figures. The painting differs slightly from the photograph: Robinson excluded a fourth boat to the starboard side of the skiff and the branch falling diagonally from the top left corner; furthermore, the photograph's strong contrast has been replaced by an overall tone of violet and green.
Robinson appears to have been pleased with Two in a Boat, as he included it in the Society of American Artists' 1895 annual exhibition and in his one-person exhibition at Macbeth's later that year. It was also one of five Robinsons lent to the 1913 Armory Show. Duncan Phillips, however, was only mildly enthusiastic about Two in a Boat; when he purchased it in 1920, he wrote the dealer Frank Rehn that he was "interested also in the little oil of the Girls in the Boat but really want[ed] an important Robinson if you get a hold of one." The following month Phillips purchased Giverny, paying nearly five times the amount paid for Two in a Boat. Collecting the artist's work primarily between 1919 and 1922, Phillips thought of Robinson as a “gifted colorist.”