In general, the leading Abstract Expressionist painters eschewed figurative representation in favor of visual essays dominated by color and gestural brushstrokes. Robert De Niro, Sr., was a talented exception to this tendency. A precocious child, he was born in Syracuse, New York, where he took classes at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now known as the Everson Museum of Art) from age eleven to fifteen. Still in his teens, De Niro enrolled at Black Mountain College in 1939 and studied with the school’s director, Josef Albers, whose analysis of color was critical to De Niro’s development. Albers’ rigid theoretical approach was ultimately incompatible with young De Niro’s more intuitive sensibility, however, and the young artist left North Carolina and moved to New York in 1940.
Hans Hofmann, the German-born Abstract Expressionist known for his theories regarding the “push-pull” of color, became De Niro’s teacher through 1942, both in New York and at his summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Recognition came quickly; De Niro’s first solo show was held in 1946 at Peggy Guggenheim’s prestigious Art of This Century Gallery. The critical response to his colorful and painterly still lifes and voluptuous nudes was positive. During the 1950s, he exhibited paintings at the Charles Egan Gallery where Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline also displayed work. In addition, De Niro was included in the Whitney Annual and exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, the Stable Gallery, and the Zabriskie Gallery, which sold several paintings and works on paper to noted collector Joseph Hirshhorn.
During the early 1960s, aesthetic taste shifted toward Pop Art and Minimalism. Disillusioned, De Niro went to France from 1961 to 1964, immersing himself in the oeuvres of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard; the former is known for his brilliant color and nudes, the latter for his sensitive handling of paint and color. In 1968, De Niro was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and, during the 1970s, he taught in New York at Cooper Union and the New School for Social Research and at East Michigan State College. In addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum all own examples of his work.
Following De Niro’s death on his seventy-first birthday, the critic for the New York Times wrote: “Whether in drawing or painting, Mr. De Niro’s work is defined by an arresting physical confidence and a quality of natural talent that was widely acknowledged, even by critics who felt that his efforts could sometimes have an unfinished or impatient quality. His subjects derived from traditional Realism—nudes, still lifes, and portraits—and he owed a particular debt to the contour drawings of Matisse. But his images, while legible, relied on a highly abstract repertory of quick dabs, thick swaths, and thin washes of paint.” In 2014, the artist’s son, the actor Robert De Niro, Jr., produced a highly regarded film documentary about his father’s career entitled Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.