Thomas Arthur Robertson (1911–1976)
Thomas Arthur Robertson is a painter known for portraits, abstract paintings, and screen prints whose works are included in numerous public and private collections. Three of his pieces—the watercolor Anthurium and the serigraphs The Orange Point and Flight—are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.
Thomas Arthur Robertson was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on July 19, 1911. Robertson’s father, Thomas N. Robertson, was an attorney and secretary of the Arkansas Law School. Following graduation from Little Rock High School, young Robertson enrolled in the law school and began studying contract and real estate law. Soon, however, with his father’s blessing, Robertson decided against legal study in favor of a career in art.
Unsure that he could really draw and fearful that he might be taking up painting too late, in 1931 Robertson enrolled in a summer art class conducted by May Danaher, a popular Little Rock teacher widely recognized for her portraits and Ozark Mountains studies. That fall, Robertson began studying at the Adrian Brewer School of Art in Little Rock. In 1933, he received the George B. Rose scholarship, providing a year’s free tuition. That same year, Robertson won the grand prize of the first Spring Amateur Art Exhibit, sponsored by the Fine Arts Club of Arkansas. His winning oil painting, Girl in Green, was selected from several hundred entries by a jury of successful Arkansas artists that included Maud Spiller Holt, Ben Brantley, and Adrian Brewer.
In 1933, Robertson helped found the Little Rock Art League and served as its first president. Unique in the South and modeled on the Art Students League in New York, this nonprofit organization offered art instruction and put on annual exhibitions. By 1934, the Art League’s teaching staff included painter Fern Edie Knecht, writer and sculptor Charlie May Simon, poet and distinguished art critic John Gould Fletcher, and woodcut and graphic artist Howard Simon. Robertson first studied printmaking with Howard Simon.
In 1935, Robertson’s painting Summer Interlude was exhibited in the 130th Annual National Exhibition held by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the oldest art museum and school in the United States. In October of that year, Robertson moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, to study with Paul Ninas, a pioneer modernist. Robertson promptly established himself as a portraitist and became an active member of the New Orleans Art League (NOAL). The New Orleans Times-Picayune described his Toulouse Street studio as showcasing a number of works, including a portrait of Robertson’s father and a picture, Glory, Glory, depicting a church group’s emotional expression of deep religious feeling.
Robertson exhibited several times in NOAL’s annual show at the Isaac Delgado Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Orleans Museum of Art—NOMA). In January 1937, under the auspices of the Art Association of New Orleans, he exhibited thirteen oil portraits and still-life studies. Two of these pieces, including Albert Rieker, a portrait of the German-born sculptor, were displayed at the National Exhibition of American Art in New York City the following July.
On April 7, 1937, Robertson married Virginia Kumbler in New Orleans, and they soon moved back to Little Rock. In 1940, Robertson became the art instructor at Little Rock Junior College, now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, succeeding Harry Louis Freund.
After his return to Little Rock, Robertson produced a noteworthy group of screen prints. These serigraphs resembled his abstract watercolors in style and palette. Four serigraphs—Sweet Boy, The Orange Point, The New Apprentice, and Little Willie—were included in his 1941 show at NOAL’s fifteenth annual exhibition at the Delgado Museum.
Robertson’s painting style turned toward complete abstraction in the 1940s. Robertson found inspiration in Native American art themes that bore no recognizable meaning. He derived the arcs, circles, slashes, and lines of his design from the ancient decorative pottery of the Caddo Indians who once inhabited land in what is today southwestern Arkansas.
In 1942, Robertson began working as a civilian draftsman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in Little Rock. He kept up his artistic activity by concentrating on smaller watercolors and tempera paintings. In 1945, twenty of his non-objective watercolors were exhibited at the Addison Gallery. These watercolors, along with his serigraphs, made up a one-man exhibition at the Little Rock Public Library later that year. During the library exhibit of his non-objective art, Robertson explained that an abstract painting “means exactly what you feel it means.” “Observers,” he said, “should try to find the picture’s beauty in the relation of form, line and color.”
Around 1946, as a USACE civilian employee, Robertson was transferred to the American Graves Registration Command in Paris, France. He seems to have given up painting while in France. Robertson returned to the United States in 1957 and settled in California. He worked for the USACE until retirement around 1960 and lived the remainder of his life in Albion, California. Robertson died on May 25, 1976.
For additional information:
Acton, David. A Spectrum of Innovation: Color in American Printmaking, 1890–1960. New York: Norton, 1990.
Federal Writers Project. WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987.
Hudson, Ralph. “Art in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 3 (Winter 1944): 299–350.
Thomas A. Teeter
Little Rock, Arkansas
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