An eighth generation Virginian, Robert Gwathmey briefly studied at the Maryland Institute of Art before entering the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1926. His teachers there included George Harding, Daniel Garber, and Franklin C. Watkins. Traveling in Europe during the summers of 1929 and 1930 as the recipient of two Cresson scholarships, Gwathmey was enthralled by Gothic art and architecture, and with stained glass in particular. Later in his career, his style became simplified with bold patterns and flat modeling, inspired by what he had seen in the great European cathedrals. After graduating from the academy in 1930, Gwathmey briefly taught art at a small girls’ college outside of Philadelphia before settling in New York City. In 1942, Gwathmey accepted a teaching position at the Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan where he taught for twenty-six years; Merton Simpson was among his students there. Within two years of his appointment at Cooper Union, Gwathmey received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and used it to live and work with African American tobacco farmers in North Carolina for two summers.
Gwathmey grew into his mature social realist style during the 1940s. A compassionate observer of the human condition, Gwathmey chose rural Southern life, and especially the plight of African Americans, as his subject matter and social commentary. His best known works are characterized by simplified forms, tight composition, strong outlines, and patterning, an approach he shared with his friend and traveling companion Claude Howell. His figures, which remained representational throughout his career, are flat and his colors intense. After his retirement from teaching, Gwathmey worked from Gwathmey House, a modernist studio designed by his son, the architect Charles Gwathmey. He was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters and to the National Academy of Design. His work is included in many public and private collections throughout the United States, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, National Academy of Design, and the Library of Congress.