Robert Gwathmey, Master Painter

By Hayes, Kelly Henderson | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Robert Gwathmey, Master Painter


Hayes, Kelly Henderson, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


"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 simply assume he must have been African American. Indeed, the artist once appeared in a volume of Who's Who in Black America.

Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) was not poor or black like the subjects of his paintings. He was an eighth-generation Virginian of Welsh heritage born to a middle-class family in Richmond. His father was a railroad engineer, and his mother worked as a public school teacher. He graduated from John Marshall High School and studied at North Carolina State University and the Maryland Institute of Design. In 1926 he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and his work there earned him the prestigious Cresson scholarship two years in a row. This stipend enabled promising young artists to travel to Europe to study during the summer. After four years at the academy, Gwathmey married fellow artist Rosalie Hook and began his career as a painter and teacher.

In 1938, the same year his only son was born, Robert Gwathmey completely changed his approach to his art. He destroyed all of the paintings he had created since graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He abandoned his classical training and began to develop the innovative style of painting for which he became known. Sixty of these striking and challenging works were part of a retrospective exhibition , at the Virginia Historical Society on view through 28 February.

Organized by the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the show examined Gwathmey's evolution as an artist and his interest in the human figure and the human condition. Though he taught life drawing at the prestigious Cooper Union School of Art in New York for more than twenty years and was an exceedingly capable draftsman, Gwathmey developed an artistic style that distorted perspective and the scale of the human figure to emphasize a moral message. …

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