Born in Richmond, Gwathmey personally experienced the challenges faced by the working class at a formative age. His father, a railroad engineer, died in a terrible train accident before Gwathmey's birth, leaving his mother and later her children to work in low-paying jobs to make ends meet. The children held part-time jobs around their schoolwork and Gwathmey once reported that he recognized the social inequalities in his community at an early age.
Oddly enough, he developed a greater interest in art while working on a freighter during the 1920s. He drew to fill up his free time, often sketching other crew members, and when the ship stopped at European ports, he began to visit museums and galleries. When, at 22, he returned to the United States, he enrolled at the Maryland Institute of Design in Baltimore and later at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
His experiences in the North and his travels expanded his outlook and provided points of comparison with life in the South. As a student and young artist, he received fellowships to study in Europe. When Gwathmey returned to Virginia., he was struck even more by social injustice and the plight of African Americans. With the onslaught of the Great Depression, Gwathmey, like many intellectuals and artists, was drawn to efforts to reform America's economic and social structure. Artist Rosalie Hook, whom he married in 1935, shared many of his political views and his concern for the marginalized and encouraged the direction he was taking in his art.
Many of the works in this exhibition reflect Gwathmey's deep empathy for working people, black and white. Among them are Hoeing Tobacco, c. 1946; Cotton Picker, 1950; and one of his best known works Portrait of a Farmer's Wife, c. 1951. In 1944, Gwathmey received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, which he used to live on a North Carolina tobacco farm for a year. He worked with the sharecroppers three days a week, formed friendships, and also pursued his art. The exhibition curator August L. Freundlich has written that "in portraying the southern black farmer, Gwathmey achieved his best and strongest work." In addition, he created such works as Poll Tax Country, c. 1945, and Belle, 1965, that strongly critique racial prejudice.
Even though he spent most of his adult years in the North, Gwathmey continued to return to the South, largely through his memories, for inspiration. As so many scholars have pointed out, the South has an incredibly strong sense of place that is nigh impossible to escape. The possible "narratives" found in Gwathmey's work may be related, in part, to the South's great storytelling tradition.
The geometric backgrounds in selected works also bring to mind some African textiles and African-American quilts, and some of the figures in his paintings recall African sculpture. The great African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson observed that Gwathmey's "identification with the South brought him close to the culture of Africa and its classic sculpture." It is easy to see why contemporary black artist Faith Ringgold, known for her story quilts, claims Gwathmey as an influence.
According to Dr. Kammen, Gwathmey's other influences ranged from the Barbizon artist Jean-François Millet, known for his paintings of humble folk, to Honoré Daumier, especially his more satiric work and caricatures. He was also drawn to Rouault's use of color and Picasso's experimentation. Some of his paintings reveal his admiration for Cubism.
Gwathmey's work fell out of favor during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, but was rediscovered when the art world began to open up in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to creating:his own art, Gwathmey taught at various colleges and universities throughout his life, including for twenty-five years at New Pork's Cooper Union. In fact, he taught night classes after teaching or often painting nearly all day, and his son, architect Charles Gwathmey, remembers that "he [his father] believed that anyone who could work at a job by day and still have the energy to go to school at night to pursue art deserved this extra time and commitment." He added: "I feel privileged and humbled by my father's life example that is both inspirational and demanding. I love a man who always left more than he took and who remains my conscience and moral reinforcement."
Gwathmey is represented in such major collections as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Brooklyn Museum; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as The Butler Institute and Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.