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.
Dubbed by the New York Times, at the time of his death from Parkinson's disease, an "artist of social passions and style," 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 (although he had visited Europe the previous year), 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-derived 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.)
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.