Nadine Robbins is an American artist best known for painting nudes, portraits, and most notably, oyster still lifes. Considering herself mostly self-taught, her body of work has gone through an interesting evolution over the years. They can be classified into three distinct phases; from quite loose near-monochromatic realism, moving into smooth, more traditional photorealism, to currently embracing highly detailed, very colorful hyperrealism embellished by pointillism.
Robbins’ life experiences are essential clues for us to appreciate her artistic trajectory fully. She describes her childhood as turbulent due to her parents’ unstable marriage. In addition to the many moves up and down the US east coast, she was sent to live with her grandmother in France on numerous occasions between six and 16. Robbins fondly recalls living in the beautiful village of Méounes-lés-Montrieux in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France, a mere 20 minutes north of Toulon and very close to the beach. There she learned to speak French by immersion into the culture and through sheer necessity, as her grandmother hardly spoke any English.
Robbins considers herself somewhat European due to having a French mother and partly growing up in France, which expresses itself in her outspokenness and open-mindedness, especially regarding nudity in art. At an early age, her mother — an unfulfilled artist who worked at a gallery — gave her two art books; one of the Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and another of Surrealist Salvador Dalí. Gazing at those vibrant pages firmly established Robbins’ love for fine art. It was Dalí’s exquisite surrealism, in particular, that made her wonder how he created these paintings and thus began an enduring desire to paint. Besides her mother’s encouragement to pursue artistic endeavors, Robbins credits her love for music, particularly the striking album covers of the ’70s and ’80s, for influencing her love of portraiture.
Despite wanting to study fine art, Robbins followed her parents’ advice and earned a BFA in Graphic Design from the State University of New York, safeguarding a relatively secure income. Preferring independence over a full-time position, she started her own graphic design company and successfully worked for the financial industry for over 20 years. The 2008 financial crash was a defining moment; Robbins decided to close her business and devote herself to painting full-time.
While her artistic trajectory began later in life than she had hoped for, Robbins learned fast, mostly through trial and error but always with a vivid passion for pursuing her goal. In the early years, she devoted herself to painting innovative portraits in which her graphic design background clearly influences her compositional choices. Between 2007 and 2011, Robbins created a series of large double portrait paintings with a subtle yet impactful near-monochromatic palette. While these were loosely painted, they tend towards photorealism. In them, she captures people in a relaxed, often amusing manner. There’s a sense that the models and artist were horsing around during the photo shoot. However, Robbins always gives her models an individual dignity that speaks of respect and camaraderie. When two of her paintings were accepted into an exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London, she felt it as a welcome confirmation that she was on the right track.
After attending a portrait conference, Robbins decided she needed to learn more about painting’s intricate aspects. A workshop hosted by artist Paul W. McCormack evolved into a two-year-long mentorship where she studied observation, the mixing and uses of color, and how to work with photographic references. While she considers herself mostly self-taught, she credits her mentor, McCormack, for an expedited increase in her painting skills range.
Expanding her repertoire, Robbins started painting oyster still lifes in 2012, which find their origin in Robbins’ childhood memories of growing up on an island outside Charleston, South Carolina, where she would eat oysters right out of the water. These still lifes give her the freedom to include more abstract elements into her work. She considers painting oysters much more freeing than faithfully capturing human anatomy and establishing realistic skin tones. Most importantly, for Robbins painting involves capturing and conveying sensations. Her oyster series emphatically suggests a sense of intimacy and delicate tenderness, highlighting the inner beauty and elegance of these mollusks — which throughout antiquity symbolized Aphrodite, the goddess of love, fertility, pleasure, and, of course, sex.
Fisher Island Memory is a commission piece that Robbins considers a culmination of the perfect balance between looseness and tight detail. While the oyster, lemon slice, and crushed ice are relatively loosely painted, the spoon is a masterful feat of hyperrealism — in its reflection, we find the highly detailed interior of the collector’s kitchen, infusing this still life with personal meaning for her patron.
At around the same time, Robbins delved into still lifes. Her portraits and nudes became bolder, more colorful. She found a satisfying balance between painting less constrained oyster still lifes and her more structured and academic nudes and portraits. Yet all of her work tells a human story; the oyster still lifes hint at delicate intimacy and sensual femininity. Her nudes and portraits echo the multifaceted reality of the human experience in western society.
Her nudes are often defiant, mirroring Robbins’ personality and indicating a healthy absence of puritanism. Painting nude women not only presents a challenge to find the right balance in the depiction of beauty, depth, vulnerability, and sexuality, but also in conveying the richness of the experience of being a woman and a female artist. Me Too is an example of Robbins’ exquisite mastery of delicate skin textures and her keen sense for compelling, graceful compositional impact.
Through her figural works, Robbins seeks to depict poignant narratives of regular people from all walks of life. She is especially interested in supporting and highlighting the much-needed changes to societal norms regarding gendered notions of identity, behavior, and sexuality. Lately, Robbins’ paintings have become increasingly blunt and outspoken in content, eschewing subtleties and taking on current issues surrounding social injustices, racism, misogyny, prejudice, and other double standards head-on. She presents them beautifully, always aware that the strength of her message lies in expressive visual attraction.
These past few years have been especially noteworthy for Robbins. Besides finding a stronger voice regarding social content, she was diagnosed with optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve, in 2018 and lost her vision in her right eye. Instead of retreating or giving up, she faced her fate in a highly proactive manner, which testifies her admirable strength of character and her resilience as an artist. This distressing situation led her to continue the momentum towards accomplishing a more graphic aspect to her established painting style, by combining realism and pointillism to reach a fresh and original expression within the realm of hyperrealism. She achieves this by adding tiny dots to a preceding layer of smooth realism; in this meticulous and slow process, she adds minute color marks that emphasize and harmonize the realism underneath and increase dramatic color and enhance form depth.
Robbins considers this new painting method a breakthrough, despite critics’ unavoidable voices complaining about the dots. However, she refuses to be defined by her circumstances and is enthusiastic about its possibilities. There’s a break from the more academic — and often tedious — process of before. This feels exciting and makes her realize that this is where she needs to be. She has found renewed enjoyment and enthusiasm in her painting process; these days, painting has become more meditative and peaceful, while her ‘voice’ is getting stronger and louder. Needless to add, this unambiguously shows in her current body of superb work.
Just Try and Stop Me epitomizes this new, more provocative content — Robbins considers it a breakthrough piece on several levels. This painting is a confrontational portrait of an angry black woman, appearing to make a statement about feminism, racism, and her views on society. While many may well find this portrait intimidating, viewers who empathize and understand society’s underlying ills will acknowledge and even applaud the right to be angry — hell, there’s cause to be! Paying attention, caring, and respecting our fellow beings form the foundation for allowing others to express their feelings. Robbins captures this young black woman’s beauty and righteousness in an honest, straightforward, and exquisitely evocative way. The flat red background reinforces these emotions and juxtaposes the intricate brushwork of the head. There’s a subtle drift between hard and soft focus, which increases this inspiring portrait’s visual impact. It is the perfect liaison between human emotion, social content, and superb painting skills.
Of late, new still lifes are happening, a departure from the oysters. #HISLIFEMATTERED is an in-your-face comment on current social events. Brilliant in its boldness, using just one object in a captivating and vibrant palette using luscious pinks and blues, the glove represents the artist’s aging and her disillusionment with the status quo. This symbol of protection is a visual protest against the ingrained and systemic ills of society. It is interesting to know that this piece sold and that part of the proceeds were donated to the ACLU. It now adorns a psychiatrist’s office, together with a glass shadow box holding the glove.
Purple is one of a large selection of Robbins’ paintings that can currently be seen at a museum exhibition, entitled 3 AMERICANS: Masters | Muirhead | Robbins — contemporary American greats at the Arnot Museum, in Elmira, NY. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition has been extended until August 28, 2021, and visitors are welcomed with the required safety measures. This museum exhibition is another milestone in Robbins’ career. As she ticks off her artistic goals one by one, more goals are added. These highpoints give her the confidence and energy to continue working despite the inevitable pitfalls and difficulties the current pandemic presents.
A New Dawn is a portrait Robbins created especially for the invitational exhibition Women Painting — All over the World held at the European Museum of Modern Art, or MEAM, in Barcelona, Spain, this spring. It will be inaugurated on March 8, 2021, in celebration of International Women’s Day. For Robbins, A New Dawn is another leap forward in her melding of realism and dots, pushing her color palette and brush techniques to the next level in her ongoing exploration of this new process. She’s curious where it will take her — and so are we!
State of Mind is a rare self-portrait of the artist, juxtaposing a flat red background against the detailed realism of the face, silently resting in gloved hands. While the title submits the painting’s content, the facial expression helps viewers decipher her possible thoughts. Of course, knowing her body of work helps us find more clues regarding Robbins’ beliefs and opinions. In an ageist society, it takes courage to accept and even love ourselves after a certain age. Still, as with all of her paintings, Robbins doesn’t shun or evade showing exactly who she is or what she thinks — an in-your-face middle-aged female artist with a strong voice and an ambitious mission to engage her viewers in a thought-provoking dialogue by way of superbly rendered paintings.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer © — March, 2021 — Antwerp, Belgium