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Robert De Niro, Sr. - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Robert De Niro, Sr. Photo

Born: May 3, 1922 - Syracuse, New York

Died: May 3, 1993 - New York, New York, USA



Robert De Niro was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1922. He began making art at age five and showed immediate and immense talent, eventually enrolling in adult classes at the Syracuse Museum. At only 12 years old, he impressed his teachers so much that he received his own studio in the museum school. While his Irish mother encouraged his painting, his Italian father did not. Despite his father's disapproval, De Niro continued developing his exceptional artistic skill.

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Early Training

In 1939, De Niro spent a summer studying with legendary painter and teacher Hans Hofmann before spending two years on full scholarship at the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina, studying with Josef Albers. De Niro, however, disliked Albers' strict theories of color. In 1941, De Niro left Black Mountain for Hofmann's school in New York, feeling a stronger connection to Hofmann's style of creating abstract movement through color. For the next several years, De Niro studied with Hofmann in both New York and Provincetown, later working at Hofmann's school. While there, De Niro met painter Virginia Admiral. The two were married in 1942, and their son Robert De Niro, Jr., the award-winning actor, was born in 1943. Hofmann, who considered De Niro one of his greatest students, became his son's godfather. However, two years later, De Niro and Admiral separated. During this time, while De Niro and Admiral were part of New York's literary and artistic bohemian circles, De Niro worked as a guard in the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which would later become the Guggenheim Museum. The director Hilla Von Rebay became a financial supporter of his work.

Mature Period

In 1946, at only 24 years old, De Niro had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, a major exhibition space at the time. Clement Greenberg was among the critics who strongly praised his work, writing, "[T]he originality and force of his temperament demonstrate themselves under an iron control of the plastic elements such as is rarely seen in our time outside the painting of the oldest surviving members of the School of Paris." De Niro's paintings during this period were abstract, but maintained figural references. Though he drew from the gestural abstraction of his New York School peers, he felt more strongly influenced by the color palette and motifs of French Fauvism and the Old Masters. Feeling closest to European artists, rather than his Abstract Expressionist peers, De Niro pursued his own, singular direction, becoming somewhat of an outsider within the New York School community. Despite his paintings' spontaneous, fluid quality, De Niro made numerous studies and drawings to carefully establish the composition before creating the final product. In fact, he disparaged his peers' desire for a fully unconscious creation of art. By the 1950's, De Niro had established what would be his definitive artistic style for the remainder of his career: modern painterly representation.

De Niro began exhibiting regularly alongside other Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, and received positive critical support from writers such as Frank O'Hara, who in Art News called De Niro "one of the most original and powerful younger painters showing today." Yet, De Niro did not sell enough of his art to take up painting full time. Despite his imposed remove from many of the Abstract Expressionists, he did depend on occasional financial support from his fellow artists, such as de Kooning. As new artistic movements such as Pop art and Minimalism became popular, De Niro remained committed to his personal style. Discouraged by his resulting lack of commercial success compared to his contemporaries, he moved to France in 1961, returning to New York in 1965 after falling into depression.

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Late Years and Death

In 1968 De Niro received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and during the late 1960s and 1970s, he continued creating and exhibiting work. At the same time, he also taught at a variety of schools, including SUNY Buffalo, Cooper Union, and the School of Visual Arts. In 1974, he created two lithograph series at Tamarind Institute in New Mexico. In addition to his paintings and sculptures, De Niro was a writer and poet. He published a 1976 volume of poetry called A Fashionable Watering Place and contributed to art magazines such as Art/World. He moved to San Francisco in 1977, but by 1980 was back in New York, where he remained until his death from cancer in 1993. De Niro's last studio in SoHo still exists exactly as he left it, having been preserved by his son.


Although De Niro's primary period of commercial and critical success was brief, he was well known and respected within the art world throughout his career. Through work that simultaneously reflected and sharply contradicted Abstract Expressionist thought, De Niro created a distinctive brand of painterly representation. His intense commitment to this personal style even as more popular movements took shape around him made him significant in expanding the purview of post-war American art. Today, his works can be found in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.

Most Important Art


"The whole idea of 'action painting' is foreign to me, and, I believe, detrimental to painting, which is what Leonardo called it, 'a mental thing.' A physical action is painting, when it dominates, dulls sensitivity to nature and to one's own feelings, precludes subtlety, and institutes a dead mechanical routine."
De Niro, Robert
"I would like to think that the exhilaration will have a great effect and influence in the deepest sense, not causing painters to develop mannerisms based on Bonnard's style, but causing them to try to equal as much as they are able, Bonnard's essence."

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