In his brief but prolific career, Robert Louis Thompson rejected traditional expectations of the African American artist to create narrative genre scenes descriptive of black life in the United States. He was equally uninterested in pure abstraction as a means of expressing universal experiences, a common objective of modern artists. Instead, Thompson followed the examples of Romare Bearden and Sam Gilliam in his exploration of aesthetic, rather than sociopolitical, issues. Often described as a figurative abstractionist, Thompson’s simplification of forms and manipulation of color to convey emotional intensity has inspired comparisons with Gauguin’s Fauvist style.
Thompson developed an interest in the arts as a teenager growing up in a middle-class family in Louisville, Kentucky. When Thompson’s father was killed in a car accident in 1950, the thirteen-year-old was sent to live with his sister and her husband, Robert Holmes. A painter, Holmes cultivated young Thompson’s artistic inclinations, offering guidance and encouragement. Following graduation from an academically rigorous all-black high school in 1955, Thompson enrolled as a pre-medicine student at Boston University. He quickly realized, however, that painting—not science—was his true passion and transferred to an art program at the University of Louisville. During these years, Thompson’s early abstractionist style gave way to a more figural approach, a shift the artist credited to a summer spent in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1958. There, Thompson met a group of emerging artists—including Red Grooms, Emilio Cruz, and Gandy Brodie—who, in contradiction to prevailing New York trends, embraced the figural in their work. Deeply influenced by these artistic rebels, Thompson likewise modified his own style.
Thompson relocated to New York City in 1959, where he encountered an artistic atmosphere that matched his own boundless energy and appetites. He settled in a dilapidated tenement building on the Lower East Side near Benny Andrews' residence and became a regular at at the Five Spot, a local jazz café frequented by artists and writers. These creative forces helped Thompson refine his signature mature style. By appropriating and adapting the compositions of European masters, Thompson transformed familiar scenes—now modernized by faceless forms rendered in deep, vibrant colors—into exuberant contemporary allegories. The colorful and symbolic intensity of his paintings captivated viewers when they were exhibited in 1960, first at the Delancey Museum and later at Zabriskie Gallery.
On the heels of these exhibitions, Thompson won a series of notable awards which financed travels through Europe from 1961 to 1963, including extended studies in Paris and Spain. Upon his return to New York in 1963, Thompson was welcomed with a series of solo exhibitions at various galleries in both New York and Chicago, attracting the patronage of influential private collectors such as Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. and Joseph H. Hirshhorn. Public collections have since followed suit, and the artist’s works are today represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute in Chicago, and Detroit Institute of Art. Tragically, Thompson died shortly before his twenty-ninth birthday and so did not live to see the impact of his career on the American art scene. His oeuvre continues to command attention and, in 1998, was the focus of a Whitney Museum traveling exhibition of over one hundred works.