Virginia Historical Society

Richmond, VA



Robert Gwathmey: A Retrospective


Nearly 60 works by Richmond, Virginia, artist Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) will remain on view at the Virginia Historical Society until February 27, 2000. The exhibition brings together the major paintings of Gwathmey's career, including Portrait of a Farmer's Wife (1969), Poll Tax Country (1945), Isolation (1977), and Sowing (1949). (left: Sowing, 1949, oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Organized by the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the show examines Gwathmey's compassion for the human spirit and his disdain for the cruel suffering of the economically disadvantaged. His work, which primarily addresses the hardships endured by blacks in rural Virginia at mid-century, was rebellious and troubling at the time that it was produced. It echoed Gwathmey's inclinations as a Social Realist, including his concern about injustice. Gwathmey argued that he was simply an observer of the human condition, not a voice for change.

Gwathmey developed a two-dimensional style that was uniquely his own. His paintings juxtapose primitive, carefully chosen shapes and angles against startling color, often outlined in black. In choosing color, Gwathmey sometimes arranged collected bits of different hued papers and rags on the table or floor until he arrived at the desired effect. Some of his paintings were inspired by his wife Rosalie's documentary photographs of African-American life in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. He also used her as a model on occasion.

Robert Gwathmey was born January 24, 1903, in Richmond, Virginia, and graduated from John Marshall High School in 1921. After some studies at North Carolina State University and the Maryland Institute of Design, he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1926 and began teaching at Beaver College in Glenside, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia) after graduation in 1930. In 1835 he married Rosalie Hook, and they had a son, Charles, in 1938. Gwathmey taught at the Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1939 to 1942 and then at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City until his retirement in 1968. He then moved to Amagansett, Long Island, to the home and studio designed by his son. Robert Gwathmey was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and to full membership in the National Academy of Design. He died in 1988 at the age of 85.

The exhibition catalog is introduced by Gwathmey's son, Charles, an accomplished architect who was involved with the Guggenheim Museum Renovation and Addition project and who is the youngest recipient of the AIA' s Brunner Prize. Charles Gwathmey is a trustee of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and recently endowed the Robert Gwathmey Chair in Art and Architecture there. (left: Isolation, 1977, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 40 1/4 inches, Courtesy of Stephens, Inc. Investment Bankers, Little Rock, Arkansas)

Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Kammen has written the first biography of Gwathmey, Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer. The publication of the book coincides with the exhibition tour. "This well-researched and much needed book is important for bringing Robert Gwathmey's compassionate observations about racial inequity and rural poverty to a broad audience, one that finally is ready to appreciate the message," remarks Charles F. Bryan, Jr., director of the Virginia Historical Society.

Read more about the Virginia Historical Society in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/23/10

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