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Robert Gwathmey

 (1903 - 1988)
Robert Gwathmey was active/lived in New York, Virginia.  Robert Gwathmey is known for African-American figure and genre painting.

Robert Gwathmey

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Robert Gwathmey became an artist known for his Social Realist depictions of life in the rural South.  He was one of the first white artists to create dignified images of African-American people and did so in a style that was modernist with many geometric forms and bold colororation.

Although he lived intermittently in Pennsylvania and in the South, he spent most of his forty-five year career in New York City where his studio was at 1 West 68th Street.  Frequently he returned to the South where he became concerned about the problems dividing blacks and whites.

At the start of his career, he traveled in Europe for two years, and then taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, and for twenty-six years at Cooper Union in New York City where he established a studio at 1 West 68th Street.  In 1944, he received a Rosenwald Fellowship and lived and worked on a tobacco farm, another experience that motivated him to turn to rural south themes in his art. In 1973, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and in 1976, to the National Academy of Design.

His family were "old Virginia," and he was raised in an environment where segregation was espoused.  He moved north to study art, going first to the Maryland Institute of Art for a year, and in 1930 earned a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  To earn money in Philadelphia, he worked in a settlement house and became much aware of tensions between people with diverse cultures. He was active politically to get money for federal support of projects to help needy individuals.  In the 1930s, he was also a WPA artist, and among his projects was a mural for the Eutaw, Alabama Post Office.

Gwathmey married Rosalie Hook of Charlotte, North Carolina, an artist and photographer who did a documentary series on blacks in the South.  These images became a source of inspiration for her husband's paintings.


Sylvia Yount and J. Binstock, "Robert Gwathmey and Andy Warhol", American Art Review, August, 2000

Matthew Bakkom Collection, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Biography from The Johnson Collection
An eighth generation Virginian, Robert Gwathmey briefly studied art at the Maryland Institute of Art before entering the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1926. His teachers there included George Harding, Daniel Garber, and Franklin C. Watkins. Traveling in Europe during the summers of 1929 and 1930 as the recipient of two Cresson scholarships, Gwathmey was taken with the Gothic art and architecture, and with stained glass in particular. Later in his career, his style became simplified with bold patterns and flat modeling, inspired by what he had seen in the great European cathedrals. After graduating from the academy in 1930, Gwathmey briefly taught art at a small girls' college outside of Philadelphia before settling in New York City. In 1942, Gwathmey accepted a teaching position at the Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan where he taught for twenty-six years; Merton Simpson was among his students there. Within two years at the Cooper Union School, Gwathmey received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and used it to live and work with African American tobacco farmers in North Carolina for two summers.

Gwathmey grew into his mature social realist style during the 1940s. A compassionate observer of the human condition, Gwathmey chose rural Southern life, and especially the plight of African Americans, as his subject matter and social commentary. His best known works are characterized by simplified forms, tight composition, strong outlines, and patterning, an approach he shared with his friend and traveling companion Claude Howell. His figures, which remained representational throughout his career, are flat and his colors intense. After his retirement from teaching, Gwathmey worked from Gwathmey House, a modernist studio designed by his son, the architect Charles Gwathmey. He was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters and to the National Academy of Design. His work is included in many public and private collections throughout the United States including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, National Academy of Design, and the Library of Congress.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Robert Gwathmey was a twentieth century artist who utilized his southern heritage as primary subject matter for his paintings.  Although he lived most of his life in New York, he was born near Richmond, Virginia and traveled home frequently.  An eighth-generation Virginian, Gwathmey was deeply impressed by his Southern heritage, something that is reflected by the imagery in his work.

Gwathmey's first formal artistic studies occurred in his twenties when he moved to Baltimore and enrolled at the Maryland Institute.  "When I went to Baltimore to study art, the first thing I saw was Negro policemen and statues of Yankee generals.  It was my first trip north, the farthest North I'd ever been, and I was 22 years old.  When I got back home, I was shocked by the poverty.  The most shocking thing was the Negroes, the oppressed segment.  If I had never gone back home, perhaps, I would never have painted the Negro.  I was shocked at the red clay, at the redness of the clay. The green pine trees and red clay were everywhere.  The Negro seemed to be everywhere, too, omnipresent.  But he was a thing apart, so segregated.  When people ask me why I paint the Negro, I ask 'Don't artists have eyes'?" (1)

Gwathmey advanced to studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he won a Cresson scholarship that enabled him to travel to Europe during the summers of 1929 and 1930. There he saw the work of many artists covering a wide range of history; but apparently, he gravitated to the Gothic style above others. (2)

Following his studies there, he taught at several schools in Pennsylvania before settling permanently in New York.  Although New York became Gwathmey's favorite city in which to live and paint, he continued his established tradition of returning home to the South to visit family every year.  In 1942, Gwathmey joined the faculty of the Cooper Union in New York, where he taught for 26 years.

 In 1944-45, he received a Rosenwald Fellowship to live and work on a tobacco farm in North Carolina.  Such an experience entrenched his work with rural southern themes and provided him with first-hand experiences to transfer to the canvas.  The farmers particularly fascinated Gwathmey, their lean bodies with deliberate and stiff actions and often portrayed them as Christ-like figures.

Although the 1950s surge of Abstract Expressionism was definitely the reigning aesthetic of the time, Gwathmey took a stand against this movement, protesting against its rejection of representational art.  He remained dedicated to the figural tradition, still relying on his subject matter to distinguish much of his art. 

While Gwathmey was often labeled a "Social Realist," his imagery focusing on the lives of the African-American minority moves beyond pure social commentary on the plight of their situation within American society.  Gwathmey remained true to his subject matter, but his exploration manifests a unique visual language.  His work demonstrates a modernist tendency to abstract shapes, forms, and colors, all the while never abandoning the human figure.  He incorporated such elements as large bands of color, low horizon lines, fragmentation of the human body, and completely flat picture planes into his paintings.

Gwathmey's distinctive style successfully fuses the formal elements of modern expression with a deeper, older tradition of realism.  Despite the strength of Gwathmey's social and political commitments, perhaps his most effective work is less about advocacy for social change than an examination of the nature of community and the relationships between the races and sexes within his region. (3)

Gwathmey's painting does not invoke social commentary per se, asking more for contemplation than pure action about the scene. Gwathmey's figures mimic the stained glass windows of the Gothic cathedrals he had seen almost two decades earlier with bright colors, bold patterning, and outlines in black. Pattern moves throughout his picture plane, typical of Gwathmey's ability to unite the figures into a tightly controlled, yet rhythmical composition.

Gwathmey himself stated, "I believe that in painting the use of limited imagery is the best method of presentation of your content. I believe that if the symbols are strong enough and simple enough and inventive enough, they can transcend literary [sic., literature?] in painting. One technical way of gaining this end is with simplified pattern. I'd also like to say that this is a modern way of painting…" (4)

1. Quoted in Elizabeth McCausland, "Robert Gwathmey," Magazine of Art (April 1946), 149.

2. Michael Kammen, Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Work of a Passionate Observer (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 18-19.

3. Charles K. Piehl, "Anonymous Heroines: Black Women as Heroic Types in Robert Gwathmey's Art," Heroines of Popular Culture, edited by Pat Browne (Bowling Green Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press), 130.

4. Quoted in McCausland, 151.

Submitted by staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Robert Gwathmey

Born:  1903 - Richmond, Virginia
Died:   1988 - Southhampton, New York
Known for:  African-American figure and genre painting