Robert Gwathmey was a social realist painter recognized for his depictions of rural life in the American south. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, an eighth generation Virginian, Gwathmey is regarded as the first white American artist to produce dignified representations of black Americans through painting. A lifelong social activist, Gwathmey was a firm believer that artistic expression and social issues could not be separated. Gwathmey was interested in documenting the human condition, primarily as it pertained to the people of his native south. He sought to portray human subjects as he saw them, through observation, without over generalizing or romanticizing. Though most well known for his iconic realist portraits of black southern agricultural workers, Gwathmey produced portraits of both whites and blacks in urban and rural landscapes, as well as still lifes.
Gwathmey’s signature style employs abstraction in the service of social realism. Through utilizing geometric shapes with bold black outlines and flat applications of color, Gwathmey created two-dimensional representations, reminiscent of stained glass. The figures featured in Gwathmey’s paintings have a powerful presence. They are often shown surrounded by minimal, stark backgrounds with linear, geometric details that merely suggest a room or rows of tobacco in a field. Gwathmey was unimpressed by the Abstract Expressionists, who he believed acted irresponsibly in their disregard for artistic tradition and the harsh realities of modern life. He brazenly defended representational art alongside fellow realist painters Edward Hopper, Jack Levine, Isabel Bishop, and Raphael Soyer.
After a year of business classes at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, Gwathmey began studying first at the Maryland Institute of Design in Baltimore and subsequently attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1926. During this time, he met fellow southerner, photographer Rosalie Hook who he later married in 1935. Together they had a son, Charles, who went on to become a successful architect, most famous for his renovation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
While the production of Gwathmey’s work was largely fueled by the social injustices of American life in the mid 1900s, his formal artistic interests were shaped by his study of European modernists such as Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Rufino Tamayo. He admired French satirist Honoré Daumier and was influenced by realist painter Jean-François Millet for his depictions of nineteenth century rural French workers. Gwathmey began developing his signature style in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and began his career as a art instructor teaching at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh in 1939. During the war, Gwathmey became active in Artists for Victory, an organization of artist’s whose mission was to assist the war effort. By the 1950s, Gwathmey had become recognized throughout the United States for his distinctive style. The artist’s social realist depictions captured audiences and art collectors despite competition from the increasingly popular Abstract Expressionist movement.
In 1942, Gwathmey began teaching studio courses at Cooper Union in New York City, where he stayed until his retirement in 1968. Among his many students were painter and comic strip illustrator Alvin Carl Hollingsworth and feminist artist Faith Ringgold who intertwined her artistic expression with social issues in her storytelling quilts as she had seen Gwathmey do. In 1944, Gwathmey received a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to spend the summer living and working with sharecroppers on a tobacco farm near Rocky Mount, North Carolina. By partaking in the work himself, he developed a genuine understanding of the type of manual labor required to harvest tobacco. This experience lent an authenticity to his subsequent portraits of tobacco workers and landscapes of North Carolina. Gwathmey also began studying the complex structures of field flowers, which led to an interest in painting still lifes. Gwathmey’s wife photographer Rosalie Hook Gwathmey, who accompanied her husband, took many photographs during the trip that later served as visual aids in the artist’s studio work. Gwathmey’s experiences during his fellowship summer became the foundation of his most iconic work, portraits of mostly black agrarian workers both hard at work in the fields and at rest, oftentimes singing and playing music. Always telling of the social conditions and racial tensions of the mid-twentieth century American South, Gwathmey’s portraits emphasize an admiration for the physical work and communal lifestyle of agrarian subcultures, despite a rapidly modernizing world.
Gwathmey retired from his teaching position at Cooper Union in 1968 and settled with his wife in the Village of Amagansett on Long Island. Aside from a brief teaching job at Boston University in the winter of 1968-69, Gwathmey spent the rest of his life concentrating on his artwork and political activism, remaining especially committed to civil rights, workers rights and the peace movement. Despite declining health and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Gwathmey continued to paint until four years before his death in 1988. His legacy as a master painter of the American South has since been upheld in various posthumous retrospectives, including at the Butler Museum of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the Telfair Art Museum in Savannah, Georgia, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, as well as the Virginia Historical Society in the artist’s native Richmond.