Robert Louis Thompson was an African-American painter and one of the youngest black artists of his day to gain fame in the United States.
Born in Louisville, KY, Thompson was the youngest of three children born to a businessman and schoolteacher. His father died in an auto accident when he was 13, and he was sent to live with relatives who influenced him through exposure to art and jazz. After high school graduation in 1955, Thompson went back to Louisville, finding work as a department store window decorator. He soon won a scholarship to the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute. It was there that his artistic style shifted from large-scale, gestural abstract to a more figurative expressionism.
In 1958, a summer stay in Provincetown, MA, further influenced his craft; he moved to New York a year later. His first exhibition at the Delaney Street Museum came about within his first year there and by then Thompson had developed what would be his signature style.
After his marriage to Carol Plenda in 1960, the two left for Europe for two and-a-half years, funded by a Walter Gutman Foundation Grant and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. In 1963, upon returning to New York, he joined the Martha Jackson Gallery; all of his shows there broke attendance records.
By making his first major sale at the age of 21, Thompson was in a class nearly by himself in recognition in the world of art. Not until the emergence of Jean-Michel Basquait in the 1980s would another African-American be so embraced.
Though as a painter the world was at his feet, his personal life was a mess. Consumed by alcohol and drug problems, he and his wife fled to Italy, hoping the change in scenery would help. Instead, on Memorial Day 1966, Robert Thompson was found dead of an apparent overdose.
The St. James Guide to Black Artist
Edited by Thomas Riggs
Copyright 1997, St. James Press, Detroit, MI