Telfair Museum of Art

Savannah, GA



Robert Gwathmey: Master Painter

March 14 - May 28, 2000


A leading member of the Social Realist movement that flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) sought to use his art to expose privilege and pretense, demand social justice, and call for major changes in the prevailing socioeconomic system. Gwathmey, who was born in Richmond, VA, is perhaps best remembered as the first white American painter to depict African Americans in a non romanticized manner. (left: Portrait of a Farmer's Wife, c, 1951, oil on canvas, 41 1/4 x 34 inches, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Gwathmey's most enduring and memorable subject matter was African-American life in the rural South. He showed the inherent dignity of sharecroppers and tenant farmers without sentimentalism. He strongly affirmed the significance of community and the cohesion of family life in black culture. In his art he emphasized the characteristic architecture of country towns and the lively posters advertising elixirs and circuses that were plastered on barns in the rural South. He also became a master of the still life, particularly field flowers and what he liked to call "vegetation." (right: Marketing, c. 1943-44, oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches, 1944.5)

Gwathmey's unique style utilized a deliberate two-dimensional flatness highlighted with deep and vivid colors, like the medieval stained glass he so admired. In addition to spending time with relatives on the family farm in rural Virginia, Gwathmey, along with his wife and son, worked for three months on a farm through a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation, to experience first-hand the lives of the poor, rural African Americans. Some sixty works, ranging in date from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s, represent Gwathmey's ouevre of oils, silkscreens, watercolors and drawings. (right: Isolation, 1977, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, Stephens Inc., LIttle Rock, AR)

A full-color catalogue written by Gwathmey expert Michael Kammen, published by the University of North Carolina Press, will accompany the exhibition and will be available for purchase at the museum. Kammen, currently the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History at Cornell University, will present a free lecture on Gwathmey's work on Tuesday, March 21 at 7 p.m. at the Telfair. (left: cover of exhibition catalogue)

Thanks to a grant from The City of Savannah Department of Cultural Affairs/Leisure Services Bureau, the Telfair will be open free to the public the week of May 21-28, 2000.

See our earlier coverage of this touring exhibition Robert Gwathmey: Master Painter (10/18/99) at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Read more about the Telfair Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

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

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