Robert Templeton, realist painter of landscapes, portraits, trucks and highways, was born into a farming family in Iowa the year of the stock market crash. Life was hard, and eventually the family lost the farm. Through all the hardship he never gave up his love of books and paintings. He recalls how he looked forward to the arrival of the Saturday Evening Post with the cover painting by Norman Rockwell. Every spare moment between school and farming chores was used to fill his sketchbooks with scenes from the Iowa countryside. He won a National Merit Scholarship, which permitted him to study at the Kansas City Art Institute. He arrived in Kansas City, barely eighteen years old, with only twenty dollars in his pocket. There he came under the influence of Thomas Hart Benton, who actually sat for him for his portrait. He never dreamed that some day he would be in the White House painting a president’s portrait.
After two years in Kansas City Templeton moved to New York to continue his studies at the Art Students League on a Ball Grant, supporting himself as an usher at Carnegie Hall.
In the Fifties New York was a hotbed of abstract expressionism, but Templeton never wavered in his belief in the validity of realism. In a letter to a friend he wrote that the world would be poorer without it, that it is a great communicator, because realist works do not need erudite essays to explain their meaning, they speak directly to the viewer. He continued to say that the works of Benton, Curry, Wood, Sloan, Henri, Bellows and Hopper sensitize us to the beauty of the Midwest and the city. Always capturing that special light, Templeton filled his sketchbooks with city and country scenes.
Templeton spent his summers in Colorado, honing his skill in portraiture on the sidewalks of Estes Park. He laughingly admitted that the Nebraska farmers were harder on him when doing their five-dollar portraits than the president of the United States.
In 1952 Templeton was drafted into the Army for a two-year tour of duty. During basic training at Fort Leonard Wood he painted a forty foot mural ‘Portrait of America’, which showed the influence of Thomas Hart Benton. After basic training he was sent to Europe. The great museums of Europe reinforced his love of portraiture, and upon discharge he settled down to a life of painting, first in New York, then moving back to Iowa, and in 1965 to Connecticut where he lived until his death in 1991.
During the Iowa period Templeton devoted his energy entirely to creating works with a transportation age theme. He participated both in the Mid America Annual at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and the Annual Iowa Artists Exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center. The paintings and constructions of trucks and highways were then shown in 1964 at the Banfer Gallery in New York under the title ‘L’Homme Machine (Machine Man)’, and posthumously in 2004 as ‘Life on the Road’ in the Founders Gallery at the National Trucking Museum in Connecticut.
The Connecticut period was filled with TIME cover commissions, including the cover of the Detroit riots, commissions of leaders in politics and industry, among them portraits of President Carter, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Connecticut Governor John Dempsey, and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee Melvin Price.
From 1967 on, after his involvement in the Detroit Riots, Templeton was determined to paint a record of the leading figures in the black civil rights movement. He felt, as we were witnessing a profound change in race relations, the nation owed these courageous people recognition for their untiring devotion to a just cause. For nearly twenty years he arranged portrait sittings with the leaders in the movement with the help and advice of Dr. Benjamin Mays, mentor and friend of Martin Luther King. The resulting collection of thirty plus paintings were first shown at Emory with a grant from the Georgia Council of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. The title “Lest we forget…Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement’ came out of a conversation Templeton had with Dr. Mays, who expressed regret that already so many people, their work and sacrifice, were forgotten. Since its first showing in 1986 the collection has toured the country. The national tour of historically black colleges under the auspices of the United Negro College Fund with funding from Heublein culminated in an exhibition on Capitol Hill in Washington. Templeton’s Black Panther trial sketches were exhibited at the Beinecke Library at Yale in 2007.
Robert Templeton’s work is part of public and private collections, including the Smithsonian, the Pentagon Museum, universities and libraries. His paintings were reproduced in publications, such as the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, the National Portrait Gallery news, the Smithsonian magazine, Art News, Black Enterprise, TIME and People Magazine.
Submitted by Leonore Templeton, Administrator Templeton Collection