Robert Templeton (artist)

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Robert Templeton and wife Leonore meeting President Carter in the Oval Office

Robert Templeton (May 11, 1929 – July 16, 1991) was an American artist. Known for his portrait of former President Jimmy Carter displayed in the National Portrait Gallery's Hall of Presidents, Templeton was very prolific with many high profile portrait commissions. His work also includes the civil rights collection "Lest we forget...Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement", highlighting seminal figures from the movement.

Robert Templeton's portrait of President Carter, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Early life[edit]

Robert Templeton was born into a farming family in Iowa on May 11, 1929. Due to the Wall Street crash that year, his upbringing was difficult and the family depended on growing vegetables, supplemented by his father's wages as a WPA worker and government rice handouts. Their quality of life improved when his father was entrusted with the management of a farm in Montgomery County, Iowa as a tenant farmer. Templeton later said that all the deprivations of his childhood toughened him rather than defeated him. He recalled how he looked forward to the arrival of The Saturday Evening Post with the cover painting by Norman Rockwell, which contributed to his decision to become an artist.[1]

In between school and farming chores he filled his sketchbooks with scenes from the Iowa countryside. His sketches caught the attention of his high school principal, who encouraged him to pursue a career in art. He won a National Merit Scholarship, and his high school art teacher helped him to apply to the Kansas City Art Institute.


He was accepted and arrived in Kansas City in 1946 at the age of seventeen. During that year Templeton was awarded the Vanderslice scholarship.[citation needed] Early on Templeton was able to cover his living expenses with portrait commissions. He spent his summers in Colorado, honing his skill in portraiture on the sidewalks of Estes Park.

In Kansas City he came under the influence of Thomas Hart Benton, who sat for him for a portrait. Templeton had gone to the Benton home for the portrait sitting, and when the sketch was finished, Benton called in his daughter to get her reaction to the portrait. When she approved, Benton was delighted, and autographed it.

In the summer of 1949 Templeton traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to visit with the artist John French Sloan and his wife Helen. A lifelong friendship developed from that visit, and when Templeton moved to New York to continue his studies at the Art Students League of New York, Sunday afternoon teas and discussions about art at the Sloan home became a regular event in Templeton's life.[citation needed] With a letter of recommendation from John Sloan, Templeton was able to get a Ball Grant from the Art Students League two years in a row. When classes were in session, he supplemented his income by ushering at Carnegie Hall. During summer recess he continued to hone his skill in portraiture in Estes Park, which generated enough income to last him through the school year.

Army service[edit]

In 1952 Templeton was drafted into the United States Army for a two-year tour of duty. During basic training at Fort Leonard Wood he painted a forty foot mural Portrait of America, which showed the influence of Thomas Hart Benton. After basic training he was sent to Germany. While still in the army, Templeton met and married his wife Leonore, and upon discharge in 1954 they settled in New York City, where he shared a studio on the Lower East Side.

Trucking and highway themes[edit]

In 1963 Templeton and his wife moved back to Iowa. Inspired by the newly constructed superhighway system covering the Midwest, he devoted his energy entirely to creating works with a transportation age theme. He participated both in the Mid America Annual at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and the Annual Iowa Artists Exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center.[citation needed] His work focused on the effect the automobile had on the landscape, and the way we live. One of the recurring images in his work is the long distance trucker, whom he uses as the protagonist of the highly stress modern man. He experienced the life of a trucker first hand when he accompanied his brother Darwin, who owned a trucking company, on cross-country hauls. The paintings and constructions of trucks and highways were shown in 1964 at the Banfer Gallery in New York under the title L'Homme Machine (Machine Man), and posthumously in 2004 as Life on the Road in the Founders Gallery at the Golden Age of Trucking Museum in Connecticut.


In 1965 he and his wife purchased a farm in Connecticut. The Connecticut period was filled with commissions of leaders in government, industry and entertainment, among them Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, actor Clark Gable, artist William Styron, baseball player Stan Musial, poet Carl Sandburg, former Texas Governor John Connally, and opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland.

Civil rights period[edit]

Templeton continued to add paintings to his Machine-Man series, but in 1967, he was an unwitting participant in an event which inspired him to take his art in a new direction. In the summer of 1967, Templeton was in Detroit painting private portrait commissions, when riots broke out. Templeton recorded the chaos in his sketchbook, observing looting, fighting National Guardsmen, firefighter battling the blazes, and even the mayor's press conference. His sketches of the events became the cover art for the August 4, 1967 edition of Time magazine, the second cover he had done for the news magazine.

In 1969, Templeton was commissioned by CBS News to be the courtroom artist for the New Haven murder trial of Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panther Party. Because the court was closed to artists and reporters, Templeton had to create his sketches secretly, and the resultant images are perhaps the only visual record that exists from the trial.[2] Templeton was flown with his sketches to New York City, where the images were shown by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. In 2007, Templeton’s Black Panther trial sketches were purchased by Yale University and exhibited at the Beinecke Library.

After his experience in the Detroit riots, Templeton devoted more time to paint a record of the leading figures in the black civil rights movement. He felt that with the profound change in race relations, the nation owed the participants recognition for their devotion to the cause. For nearly twenty years he arranged portrait sittings with leaders in the movement, with the help and advice of Dr. Benjamin Mays, mentor and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The resulting collection of over thirty paintings were first shown at Emory University with a grant from the Georgia Council of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. The title "Lest we forget... Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement" came out of a conversation Templeton had with Dr. Mays,[citation needed] who expressed regret that already so many people, their work and sacrifice, were forgotten. Since its first showing in 1986 the collection has toured the country.


Templeton died in his home in Connecticut on July 16, 1991 of natural causes.


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