Pioneer Profiles – May 2017

Adapted by Carolyn Kingsnorth from “A Lasting Impression: The Art and Life of Regina Dorland Robinson” by Dawna Curler, with the permission of the Southern Oregon Historical Society and the author.

For most of her brief life, Regina Dorland Robinson worked steadily toward one goal: to become an accomplished and successful artist. She studied and practiced technique, experimenting with multiple mediums and styles. By 1916, at the age of 24, she had gained a confidence and competency that gave her work its inspiring uniqueness. Dorland was receiving recognition for her work, not only in her home state of Oregon, but around the San Francisco Bay Area—a major center of West Coast art circles. The following year, in the spring of 1917, she took her own life. How could she come so close to achieving her life’s dream only to end it so abruptly? And why?

Born in 1891, Dorland grew up in an impressive three-story home on the edge of Jacksonville. Her parents, Dr. James and Tillie Robinson, were prominent citizens in the community. Dorland’s father began his medical practice in 1878 and later opened the City Drug Store. He sat on the town council and served at least one term as mayor. Dorland’s mother was the daughter of a successful gunsmith and hardware merchant. Grandmother, aunts and uncles lived close by. Dorland was from a family with influence and reputation.

A year before Dorland’s birth, the Robinson’s first two children, six-year-old Willie and five-year-old Leah, died a week apart from diphtheria. A statue of a kneeling child marks their graves in the Jacksonville Cemetery. To cope with their grief, Dorland’s parents centered their lives around their precious new baby. Beautiful and talented, Dorland became a cherished but overly-protected little girl.

To keep her from harm, the Robinson’s kept close rein on her activities, sent her to a private school and carefully chose her playmates. As a result, Dorland was variously described as “a lonely girl,” “retiring,” and “a recluse,” although it is known that she did have friends, was a participant in several public musical events, and occasionally was listed as an “attendee” at parties.

Dorland’s first exposure to art came in her own home where ornately-framed landscapes adorned the parlor walls. Her father was an amateur painter; family friend, photographer Peter Britt, was also an artist. Dorland no doubt learned something about painting early on from both men and showed artistic potential at a young age. Her eighth-grade drawings, part of a class assignment at St. Mary’s Academy, reveal untrained yet remarkable ability.

As an adolescent, Dorland spent countless hours drawing and painting. Her parents exposed her to major art exhibitions in Portland and San Francisco featuring 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings by Dutch, English, and French masters and French and American Impressionists. The latter in particular may have inspired the Impressionist style that she was to emulate in much of her own work.

Recognizing her exceptional talent, her parents provided her with art lessons in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Portland, and at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine arts, America’s oldest art school. She studied opaque and watercolor painting, anatomy, figure drawing, charcoal, and oil. She learned her lessons well. When viewed as a group, her work exhibits “marked transformation” and “a stunningly liquid and ethereal quality.”

By the end of 1911 it was decided that, if Dorland’s career were to flourish, she needed to relocate to a metropolitan area. The family chose Oakland, California. For the next several years, Dorland and her mother maintained a residence in Oakland while her father traveled back and forth. During this time, Dorland developed contacts within the San Francisco and East Bay art community and honed her Impressionistic style. But by 1915, the Robinsons were living once again in Jacksonville.

The year 1916 was undoubtedly the most eventful and in some ways the most bizarre year in Dorland’s life. The artist’s talent captured the attention of the ladies of the Greater Medford Club, a women’s civic improvement group. In January, club members organized an elegant tea and exhibition of 35 of Dorland’s paintings. The affair was so successful that Dorland lined-up portrait commissions and the Club planned a second show of Dorland’s paintings for the following year.

In April, Dorland traveled to San Francisco, probably for the first time without a parent by her side. Her traveling companion was Mrs. George E. Johnson, wife of the general manager of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad. Stella Johnson was founder of the Medford Arts & Crafts League, an art patroness and artist in her own right, and also well known in Portland art and social circles. The two women spent three weeks visiting the enormous art exhibit held over from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition.

August brought more recognition to Dorland. She received praise and attention for her life-sized portrait of Stella Johnson on display at the Hotel Portland, and arrangements were being made for exhibitions of Dorland’s work at the Portland Art Museum and in San Francisco.

The timing and details are frustratingly vague, but at some point during all of this activity, Dorland met Charles Henry Pearson, a Yale Lock Company salesman, 12-years her senior. On October 25, 1916, they married at the Congregational Church in Portland. Following the wedding the couple apparently did some extended traveling. They passed briefly through Jacksonville towards the end of November then headed to San Francisco to make their home.

Unknown trouble struck. Pearson filed for divorce on December 13. December 14th newspaper accounts indicate Dorland had suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. She was out of the hospital and “recovering” by early January, and on January 6 Dorland filed a cross-complaint for divorce charging “extreme cruelty” and “grievous mental suffering,” standard complaints for the time. A provisional decree was granted three days later, less than three months after their marriage.

Dorland’s health improved. She and her mother took rooms at a boarding house in San Mateo, and 25-year-old Dorland turned back to her art career. In March, she displayed several of her paintings in a local gallery. On April 5, she wrote to Stella Johnson inviting her for a visit. Dorland seemed to be recovering when suddenly, it was over.

Obituaries describe how, on April 7, 1917, Mrs. Robinson found her daughter lying lifeless in the bedroom, a revolver nearby. No diary or suicide note was discovered that might have given clues to Dorland’s inner thoughts. Explanations in the press cited “unhappy domestic experience,” “over work,” “nervous prostration,” and “an unusually sensitive and intense disposition.” Dorland was buried a few days later in the Jacksonville Cemetery beside her brother and sister.

A century has passed since Dorland’s death. Although her life was cut so short, through the legacy of her artwork, Regina Dorland Robinson has indeed left a lasting impression. Her sketches and paintings contain both an immediacy and a soft impressionistic touch that stir the imagination and transcend time.

A Lasting Impression, published by the Southern Oregon Historical Society, contains Dorland’s compelling life story and 95 images of her artwork, the largest compilation that exists. Become a new member of the Southern Oregon Historical Society by June 30, 1917, and receive a free copy with your membership. For membership benefits and details, visit The book is also available for purchase online and at the SOHS Library.