Robert Gwathmey 1903 —1988


Acclaimed by the NY Times as: "an artist of social passions and style,"
Robert Gwathmey, was one of the most committed social realists of his generation.

Robert Gwathmey received a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1930. A native Virginian, he was highly regarded during the postwar period for his sensitive observations of rural life in the American South, painted in a modernist idiom of geometric forms and bold colors largely inspired by Pablo Picasso.

Gwathmey always viewed himself as an observer, dually committed to art and civil action.

After a year of artistic study at Baltimore's Maryland Institute of Design, a sojourn that marked Gwathmey's first trip North, he trained at the Pennsylvania Academy from 1926 to 1930. Working primarily with Franklin Watkins and Daniel Garber, Gwathmey had yet to settle on his distinctive cubist-inspired style and social subject matter. Nevertheless, his formative years in Philadelphia would shape his future practice on a variety of levels.

Gwathmey received his greatest acclaim in the 1940s. By this time, he was largely based in New York, where he maintained an active presence in the gallery scene and his work was collected by major museums. In 1942, he joined the faculty of the Cooper Union  as a drawing instructor, a position he held until 1968. An inspiring teacher who encouraged his students to concern themselves with ethics and morality in both aesthetic and social terms, Gwathmey influenced many younger artists. (The contemporary African-American artist Faith Ringgold  credits Gwathmey for her interest in fusing aesthetic and life experiences in her multimedia production.)
Faith Ringgold wrote of Robert Gwathmey, "I started by wanting to understand why this white Virginian, a native of Richmond (home base for the Confederacy), painted African Americans with stunning empathy and restraint." That is the question that inspired Pulitzer prize-winning historian Michael Kammen to write a biography of artist Robert Gwathmey. It is the same question that occurs to many viewers seeing for the first time Gwathmey's paintings of blacks in the rural South. Others who are introduced to Gwathmey's work without knowing about him ......

Robert Gwathmey himself provides the answer, "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'?"

During the 1950s, Gwathmey's figurative work, along with that of his colleagues Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, and Jacob Lawrence, was overshadowed by the critical dominance of abstract painting. By the 1960s, a decade of civil unrest, his art of social protest was again back in fashion. In 1973, Gwathmey was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters  and, in 1976, he became an associate member of the National Academy of Design.

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