Boardman Robinson

Boardman Robinson

Boardman Robinson, the son of a sea captain, was born in Somerset, Nova Scotia, on 6th September, 1876. He spent his childhood in Wales but moved to the United States when he enrolled at the Massachusetts Art School in Boston. He also studied at the Académie Colarossi and the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Robinson married Sarah Senter Whitney married at Plessis Trevise, Seine-et Oise, on 28th November 1903. He worked as art editor for Vogue, before returning to the New York City in 1904, where he found work drawing cartoons the New York Morning Telegraph. His work also appeared in Scribner's Magazine, Collier's Weekly and Harper's Weekly.

In 1910 Robinson was recruited by the New York Tribune to draw editorial cartoons. Over the next four years he developed a distinctive style by using black crayon with ink washes. Robinson was a strong supporter of woman suffrage and after Alice Paul and Lucy Burns formed the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) he contributed to the organization's magazine, The Suffragist.

Max Eastman became a close friend during this period: "He was big, burly, bluff, sea-captain sort of character, with dancing blue eyes under bushy red brows, a red beard, and a boisterous way of blowing in as though out of a storm, instead of merely entering, a place of habitation. Everybody called him Mike, and I guess it must have been in memory of Michelangelo, whose fury and rapture his powerful and meaningful drawings did recall."

Robinson was a socialist and was often in conflict with the editor of the New York Tribune. On the outbreak of the First World War he resigned and began to produce cartoons for the left-wing magazine, The Masses. Organized like a co-operative, artists and writers who contributed to the journal shared in its management. Other radical writers and artists who joined the team included Floyd Dell, John Reed, William Walling, Crystal Eastman, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Amy Lowell, Louise Bryant, John Sloan, Art Young, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, K. R. Chamberlain, Stuart Davis, Lydia Gibson, George Bellows and Maurice Becker.

Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses, believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system and that the USA should remain neutral. This was reflected in the fact that the articles and cartoons that appeared in journal attacked the behaviour of both sides in the conflict. Boardman Robinson and other members of the team shared this view.

John Reed with Boardman Robinson in 1915.
John Reed with Boardman Robinson in 1915.

In 1915, Carl Hovey, the editor of Metropolitan Magazine, sent Boardman Robinson and John Reed to Europe where they covered the battle fronts in France, Germany, Russia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. In 1916 Robinson contributed illustrations for Reed's book, War In Eastern Europe: Travels Through the Balkans (1916). Robinson later explained that he "was not interested in photographic accuracy, he was trying to give the right impression."

After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, The Masses came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges. In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that cartoons by Boardman Robinson, Art Young and H. J. Glintenkamp and articles by Max Eastman and Floyd Dell had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort.

Boardman Robinson, The Masses (July, 1916)
Boardman Robinson, The Masses (July, 1916)

Floyd Dell argued in court: "There are some laws that the individual feels he cannot obey, and he will suffer any punishment, even that of death, rather than recognize them as having authority over him. This fundamental stubbornness of the free soul, against which all the powers of the state are helpless, constitutes a conscious objection, whatever its sources may be in political or social opinion." The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication. In April, 1918, after three days of deliberation, the jury failed to agree on the guilt of the defendants.

The second trial was held in January 1919. John Reed, who had recently returned from Russia, was also arrested and charged with the original defendants. Floyd Dell wrote in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "While we waited, I began to ponder for myself the question which the jury had retired to decide. Were we innocent or guilty? We certainly hadn't conspired to do anything. But what had we tried to do? Defiantly tell the truth. For what purpose? To keep some truth alive in a world full of lies. And what was the good of that? I don't know. But I was glad I had taken part in that act of defiant truth-telling." This time eight of the twelve jurors voted for acquittal. As the First World War was now over, it was decided not to take them to court for a third time.

Boardman Robinson
Boardman Robinson

In 1918 Eastman joined with Art Young, Floyd Dell and his sister, Crystal Eastman, to establish another radical journal, The Liberator. Other writers and artists involved in the magazine included Boardman Robinson, Claude McKay, Robert Minor, Stuart Davis, Lydia Gibson, Maurice Becker, Helen Keller, Cornelia Barns, and William Gropper.

Robinson was employed as a teacher at Arts Students League in New York City (1919-30). It had no entrance requirements and no set course. With teachers such as John Sloan, Art Young, George Luks, George Grosz and George Bellows, it developed a reputation for progressive teaching methods and radical politics.

In 1936 he became head the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Some of his students included Edmund Duffy, Jacob Burck, Bill Tytla and Russel Wright. He also produced several murals including those at the Rockefeller Center and the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C.

Boardman Robinson died on 5th September, 1952.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Max Eastman, Love and Revolution (1964)

A regular contributor to The Masses was Boardman Robinson, then and perhaps permanently regarded as one of America's greatest artists. "His masterly drawings had the breathlike delicacy as well as the power of the old Masters," in the judgment of a fellow artist, Reginald Marsh. Surprisingly as it may seem, he actually introduced into America the idea, as old as Daumier, that cartoons should have the values of art as well as of meaning.

He was big, burly, bluff, sea-captain sort of character, with dancing blue eyes under bushy red brows, a red beard, and a boisterous way of "blowing in" as though out of a storm, instead of merely entering, a place of habitation. Everybody called him Mike, and I guess it must have been in memory of Michelangelo, whose fury and rapture his powerful and meaningful drawings did recall.

When Mike blew in with a picture of a white-clad, saintly Jesus standing against a stone wall facing the rifles of a brutish firing squad - "The Deserter"- I felt that number (The Masses, July, 1916) deserved a place in the history of art.

(2) Barbara Gelb, So Short a Time (1973)

This time, Reed traveled with the artist Boardman Robinson who was assigned to illustrate Reed's stories. Reed and Robinson became close friends. Robinson, at thirty-nine, was a well-known political cartoonist, whose work appeared regularly in the New York Tribune. (He later became a celebrated muralist.) The son of a Nova Scotian sea captain, he had worked his way through art school in Boston and later studied in Paris. Max Eastman once described him as "a big, burly, bluff sort of a character, with dancing blue eyes under bushy red brows, a red beard, and a boisterous way of blowing in as though out of a storm." Everyone called him Mike, "in memory," according to Eastman, "of Michelangelo, whose fury and rapture his powerful and meaningful drawings did recall"

Boardman Robinson, New York Times (1914)
Boardman Robinson, New York Times (1914)

(3) The Masses (September, 1917)

The Post Office was represented by Assistant District Attorney Barnes. He explained that the Department construed the Espionage Act as giving it power to exclude from the mails anything which might interfere with the successful conduct of the war.

Four cartoons and four pieces of text in the August issue were specified as violations of the law. The cartoons were Boardman Robinson's Making the World Safe for Democracy, H. J. Glintenkamp's Liberty Bell and the conscription cartoons, and one by Art Young on Congress and Big Business. The conscription cartoon was considered by the Department "the worst thing in the magazine". The text objected to was A Question, an editorial by Max Eastman; A Tribute, a poem by Josephine Bell; a paragraph in an article on Conscientious Objectors; and an editorial, Friends of American Freedom.