SynopsisPainter, sculptor and poet Robert De Niro, Sr. was a substantial contributor to post-war American art for his dedication to painterly representation. While his contemporaries eschewed the figurative style of the Old Masters, De Niro reveled in it. Yet, he manipulated this representative imagery in highly imaginative ways, using reality as a framework in which to evolve his intensely expressive brushstrokes and colors. This vivid, innovative, representational work established De Niro as a distinct figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement.
ChildhoodRobert De Niro was born in Syracuse, New York in 1922. He began making art at age 5 and showed immediate and immense talent, eventually enrolling in adult classes at the Syracuse Museum. At only 12 years old, he impressed his teachers so much that he received his own studio in the museum school. While his Irish mother encouraged his painting, his Italian father did not. Despite his father's disapproval, De Niro continued developing his exceptional artistic skill.
Early TrainingIn 1939, De Niro spent a summer studying with legendary painter and teacher before spending two years on full scholarship at the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina, studying with Josef Albers. De Niro, however, disliked Albers' strict theories of color. In 1941, De Niro left Black Mountain for Hofmann's school in New York, feeling a stronger connection to Hofmann's style of creating abstract movement through color. For the next several years, De Niro studied with Hofmann in both New York and Provincetown, later working at Hofmann's school. While there, De Niro met painter Virginia Admiral. The two were married in 1942, and their son Robert De Niro, Jr., the award-winning actor, was born in 1943. Hofmann, who considered De Niro one of his greatest students, became his son's godfather. However, two years later, De Niro and Admiral separated. During this time, while De Niro and Admiral were part of New York's literary and artistic bohemian circles, De Niro worked as a guard in the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which would later become the Guggenheim Museum. The director Hilla Von Rebay became a financial supporter of his work.
Mature PeriodIn 1946, at only 24 years old, De Niro had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century Gallery, a major exhibition space at the time. Clement Greenberg was among the critics who strongly praised his work, writing, "[T]he originality and force of his temperament demonstrate themselves under an iron control of the plastic elements such as is rarely seen in our time outside the painting of the oldest surviving members of the School of Paris." De Niro's paintings during this period were abstract, but maintained figural references. Though he drew from the gestural abstraction of his New York School peers, he felt more strongly influenced by the color palette and motifs of French Fauvism and the Old Masters. Feeling closest to European artists, rather than his Abstract Expressionist peers, De Niro pursued his own, singular direction, becoming somewhat of an outsider within the New York School community. Despite his paintings' spontaneous, fluid quality, De Niro made numerous studies and drawings to carefully establish the composition before creating the final product. In fact, he disparaged his peers' desire for a fully unconscious creation of art. By the 1950's, De Niro had established what would be his definitive artistic style for the remainder of his career: modern painterly representation.
De Niro began exhibiting regularly alongside other Abstract Expressionists such as , and Franz Kline, and received positive critical support from writers such as Frank O'Hara, who in Art News called De Niro "one of the most original and powerful younger painters showing today." Yet, De Niro did not sell enough of his art to take up painting full time. Despite his imposed remove from many of the Abstract Expressionists, he did depend on occasional financial support from his fellow artists, such as de Kooning. As new artistic movements such as Pop art and Minimalism became popular, De Niro remained committed to his personal style. Discouraged by his resulting lack of commercial success compared to his contemporaries, he moved to France in 1961, returning to New York in 1965 after falling into depression.
Late Period and DeathIn 1968 De Niro received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and during the late 1960s and 1970s, he continued creating and exhibiting work. At the same time, he also taught at a variety of schools, including SUNY Buffalo, Cooper Union and the School of Visual Arts. In 1974, he created two lithograph series at Tamarind Institute in New Mexico. In addition to his paintings and sculptures, De Niro was a writer and poet. He published a 1976 volume of poetry called "A Fashionable Watering Place" and contributed to art magazines such as "Art/World." He moved to San Francisco in 1977, but by 1980 was back in New York, where he remained until his death from cancer in 1993. De Niro's last studio in SoHo still exists exactly as he left it, having been preserved by his son.
LegacyAlthough De Niro's primary period of commercial and critical success was brief, he was well known and respected within the art world throughout his career. Through work that simultaneously reflected and sharply contradicted Abstract Expressionist thought, De Niro created a distinctive brand of painterly representation. His intense commitment to this personal style even as more popular movements took shape around him made him significant in expanding the purview of post-war American art. Today, his works can be found in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.
Below are Robert De Niro's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Willem De Kooning
Years Worked: 1933 - 1993
Quotes"The whole idea of 'action painting' is foreign to me, and, I believe, detrimental to painting, which is what Leonardo called it, 'a mental thing.' A physical action is painting, when it dominates, dulls sensitivity to nature and to one's own feelings, precludes subtlety, and institutes a dead mechanical routine."
"I would like to think that the exhilaration will have a great effect and influence in the deepest sense, not causing painters to develop mannerisms based on Bonnard's style, but causing them to try to equal as much as they are able, Bonnard's essence."
BiographyRobert De Niro, Sr
PaintingsRobert De Niro, Sr (1922-1993)
Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993): Paintings
Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993): Landscapes
ArticlesRobert De Niro, 71, A New York Painter and Actor's Father
By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
May 7, 1993
In the Name of the Father
By John Baxter
September 26, 2002
Paint Brushes Full, Robert De Niro Sr. Really Thought Big
By Hilton Kramer
The New York Observer
March 6, 2005
The Bohemian Life of Robert De Niro, Sr
By Christopher Turner
March 19, 2009
Video ClipsVideo of Robert De Niro presenting his father's exhibit (in Spanish)
August 20, 2008 - EFE
|German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
ArtStory: Hans Hofmann Page
|Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem De Kooning Page
|Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock Page
|Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cut-outs, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
ArtStory: Henri Matisse Page
|André Derain, co-founder of Fauvism with Henri Matisse, was a French artist whose paintings exhibit the writhing energetic lines and bright colors characteristic of the movement.
|Chaim Soutine was a Jewish Expressionist painter from Belarus whose textured, impasto style was influential for later gestural painters. He is especially known for his portraits and his studies of flayed meat.
|The French artist Pierre Bonnard, although dismissed as old-fashioned by some of the avant-garde in his lifetime, was esteemed by contemporary colorists like Matisse. A member of the Nabis group in his youth, his innovative paintings play with light, decorative surfaces, and Impressionist techniques.
|Tennessee Williams was an American dramatist and writer whose plays explore issues of family obligations and regret. Set in quintessentially American towns or cities, they often feature desperate characters grappling with depression, alcoholism, or the specter of insanity.
|Anais Nin was a French-Cuban literary figure best known for her extensive journals and erotic writings. Her circles of friends included prominent writers, psycholanalysts, and artists in New York and other cities.
|Robert Duncan was an American poet commonly associated with the Beat movement and the San Francisco bohemian culture of the 1950s. Duncan was also a member of the Black Mountain Poets and an early proponent of gay culture and homosexual civil rights.
|Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled "les fauves" or "wild beasts" by critic Louis Vauxcelles, the artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism Page
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Larry Rivers was an American artist whose work combines the brushy texture of Abstract Expressionism with figurative elements and a Pop Art style. He was an earlier practitioner of appropriation techniques, and his paintings sample from art history, commercial products, celebrity imagery, and other styles and sources.
|Jane Freilicher was an American painter in mid-20th-century New York. After studying under Hans Hofmann, Freilicher became associated with a group of quasi-abstract figurative painters, such as Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine and Fairfield Porter.
|Lester Johnson is an American painter often associated with the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. He is nown for employing an action painting approach to his canvases and employing quasi-abstract, expressionistic forms.
|Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the 20th century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Pollock, Still and Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg Page
|Thomas B. Hess was an art critic and historian, and a proponent of Abstract Expressionism. He served as editor of the influential magazine Art News.
ArtStory: Thomas B. Hess Page
|Neo-Fauvism was a little-known European art movement that began in the 1920s, both as a continuation of the turn-of-the-century Fauvist school, and as a direct response to Surrealism and its growing popularity. The Neo-Fauves' main stance was that Surrealism was just another development of modern visual art, and not some automatic extension of the human unconscious, as popular theory expounded.