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On this date in 1937, Robert Louis Thompson was born. He was a Black painting artist.
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. There, his artistic style shifted from large-scale, gestural abstract to 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. He received 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 broke attendance records.
By making his first significant sale at 21, Thompson was in a class nearly by himself in recognition in the art world. Not until the emergence of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s would another Black 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, one of the youngest Black artists of his day to gain fame in the United States, was found dead of an apparent overdose.