Robert Hughes (critic)

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Robert Hughes

Hughes in 1986
Robert Studley Forrest Hughes

(1938-07-28)28 July 1938
Sydney, Australia
Died6 August 2012(2012-08-06) (aged 74)
New York City, U.S.
EducationSaint Ignatius' College, Riverview
Alma materUniversity of Sydney

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes AO (28 July 1938 – 6 August 2012) was an Australian-born art critic, writer, and producer of television documentaries. He was described in 1997 by Robert Boynton of The New York Times as "the most famous art critic in the world."[1][2]

Hughes earned widespread recognition for his book and television series on modern art, The Shock of the New, and for his longstanding position as art critic with TIME magazine. He is also known for his best seller The Fatal Shore (1986), a study of the British convict system in early Australian history. Known for his contentious critiques of art and artists, Hughes was generally conservative in his tastes, although he did not belong to a particular philosophical camp. His writing was noted for its power and elegance.[2]

Early life[edit]

Hughes was born in Sydney, in 1938. His father and paternal grandfather were lawyers. Hughes's father, Geoffrey Forrest Hughes, was a pilot in the First World War, with later careers as a solicitor and company director. He died from lung cancer when Robert was aged 12.[1][2] His mother was Margaret Eyre Sealy, née Vidal. His elder brother was Australian politician Thomas Eyre Forrest Hughes,[3] the father of former Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull, the wife of former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He had another brother Geoffrey and one sister, Constance.

Growing up in Rose Bay, Sydney,[4] Hughes was educated at Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview before studying arts and then architecture at the University of Sydney.[5][6] At university, he associated with the Sydney "Push" – a group of artists, writers, intellectuals and drinkers. Among the group were Germaine Greer and Clive James.[1]


As an art critic[edit]

Hughes, an aspiring artist and poet, abandoned his university endeavours to become first a cartoonist and then an art critic for the Sydney periodical The Observer, edited by Donald Horne.[7] Hughes was briefly involved in the original Sydney version of Oz magazine and wrote art criticism for Nation and the Sunday Mirror.[8]

In 1961, while still a student, Hughes was caught up in controversy when a number of his classmates demonstrated in a student newspaper article that he had published plagiarised poetry by Terence Tiller and others, and a drawing by Leonard Baskin.[9]

Hughes left Australia for Europe in 1964, living for a time in Italy before settling in London in 1965,[1] where he wrote for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, and The Observer, among others, and contributed to the London version of Oz. In 1970 he was appointed art critic for TIME magazine and moved to New York, where he soon became an influential voice.[6]

In 1966 Hughes published a history of Australian painting titled The Art of Australia, still considered an important work.[1]

Hughes wrote and narrated the BBC eight-part series The Shock of the New (1980) on the development of modern art since the Impressionists.[10] It was produced and in part directed by Lorna Pegram.[11] It was accompanied by a book with the same title. John O'Connor of The New York Times said, "Agree or disagree, you will not be bored. Mr. Hughes has a disarming way of being provocative."[10]

External videos
video icon Booknotes interview with Hughes on American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, July 20, 1997, C-SPAN

Hughes's TV series American Visions (1997) reviewed the history of American art since the Revolution.[1] Hughes's documentary on Francisco Goya, Goya: Crazy Like a Genius (2002),[5] was broadcast on the first night of the new British domestic digital service, BBC Four.[12] He created a one-hour update to The Shock of the New, titled The New Shock of the New, which first aired in 2004.[13] He published the first volume of his memoirs, Things I Didn’t Know, in 2006.[14]

Following his death, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian that Hughes "was simply the greatest art critic of our time and it will be a long while before we see his like again. He made criticism look like literature. He also made it look morally worthwhile. He lent a nobility to what can often seem a petty way to spend your life. Hughes could be savage, but he was never petty. There was purpose to his lightning bolts of condemnation".[15]

As a journalist and historian[edit]

Hughes and Harold Hayes were recruited in 1978 to anchor the new ABC News (US) newsmagazine 20/20. Their only broadcast, on 6 June 1978, proved so controversial that, less than a week later, ABC News president Roone Arledge terminated the contracts of both men, replacing them with veteran TV host Hugh Downs.[2]

Hughes's book The Fatal Shore followed in 1987. A study of the British penal colonies and early European settlement of Australia, it became an international best-seller.[2] During the late 1990s, Hughes was a prominent supporter of the Australian Republican Movement.[16] Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (2000) was a series musing on modern Australia and Hughes's relationship with it. During production, Hughes was involved in a near-fatal road accident.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Hughes met his first wife, Danne Emerson, in London in 1967. Together they became involved in the counterculture of the 1960s, exploring drug use and sexual freedom.[2][18] They divorced in 1981; she died of a brain tumour in 2003.[2][19] Their son, Danton, Hughes's only child,[1] was named after the French revolutionary Georges Danton.[5] Danton Hughes, a sculptor, committed suicide in April 2001; he was found by his partner, fashion designer Jenny Kee, with whom he had been in a long-term relationship. Robert Hughes later wrote: "I miss Danton and always will, although we had been miserably estranged for years and the pain of his loss has been somewhat blunted by the passage of time".[6]

Hughes was married to his second wife, Victoria Whistler, from 1981 until a divorce in 1996.[6]

In 1999, Hughes was involved in a near-fatal car accident south of Broome, Western Australia. He was returning from a fishing trip and driving on the wrong side of the road when he collided head on with another car carrying three occupants. He was trapped in the car for three hours before being airlifted to Perth in critical condition.[17] Hughes was in a coma for five weeks after the crash.[20] In a 2000 court hearing, Hughes's defence barrister alleged that the occupants of the other car had been transporting illicit drugs at the time of the accident and were at fault.[21] In 2003 Hughes pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing bodily harm and was fined A$2,500.[20] Hughes recounts the story of the accident and his recovery in the first chapter of his 2006 memoir Things I Didn't Know.[22][23]

In 2001, Hughes wed his third wife, the American artist and art director Doris Downes. "Apart from being a talented painter, she saved my life, my emotional stability, such as it is", he said.[24]


After a long illness, exacerbated by some 50 years of serious alcoholism, Hughes died at Calvary Hospital in The Bronx, New York City, on 6 August 2012, with his wife at his bedside. He was also survived by two stepsons from his wife's previous marriage, Freeborn Garrettson Jewett IV and Fielder Douglas Jewett; his brothers, Tom and Geoffrey Hughes; a sister, Constance Crisp; and many nieces and nephews.[2]


When The Shock of the New was proposed to the BBC, television programmers were sceptical that a journalist could properly follow the aristocratic tone of Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation had been so successful.[25] The Shock of the New proved to be a popular and critical success: it has been assessed "much the best synoptic introduction to modern art ever written", taking as its premise the vitality gained by modern art when it ceded the need to replicate nature in favour of a more direct expression of human experience and emotion.[26] Hughes's explanations of modern art benefited from the coherence of his judgments, and were marked by his ability to summarise the essential qualities of his subject.[25]

Whether positive or negative, his judgments were enthusiastic. He championed London painters like Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, helping to popularise the latter in the United States, and wrote with unabashed admiration for Francisco Goya and Pierre Bonnard.[27] By contrast Hughes was dismissive of much postmodernism and neo-expressionism, of painters like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, as well as the vicissitudes of a money-fuelled art market.[27] While his reviews expressed antipathy for the avant-garde, he was beholden neither to any theory nor ideology, and managed to provoke both ends of the political spectrum.[25][28] He distrusted novelty in art for its own sake, yet he was also disdainful of a conservative aesthetic that avoided risk. He famously labelled contemporary Australian indigenous art as "the last great art movement of the 20th century".[29] Hughes, according to Adam Gopnik, was drawn to work that was rough-hewn, "craft attempted with passion."[26]

Hughes's critical prose, vivid in both praise and indignation, has been compared to that of George Bernard Shaw,[26] Jonathan Swift[27] and William Shakespeare.[25][27] "His prose", according to a colleague, "was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing."[25] In different moods he could write that "Schnabel’s work is to painting what Stallone’s is to acting: a lurching display of oily pectorals,"[27] as well as conclude that Antoine Watteau "was a connoisseur of the unplucked string, the immobility before the dance, the moment that falls between departure and nostalgia."[25]




  • Hughes, Robert (1965). Donald Friend. Sydney: Edwards and Shaw.
  • — (1966). The Art of Australia. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-020935-2.
  • — (1968). Heaven and Hell in Western Art. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-17671-8.
  • — (1987). The Fatal Shore. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 0-394-50668-5.
  • — (1989). Lucian Freud Paintings. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-27535-1.
  • — (1990). Frank Auerbach. Thames and Hudson.
  • — (1991). Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Including 'SoHoiad'). London: The Harvill Press. ISBN 1-86046-859-4.
  • — (1991). The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change (updated and enlarged ed.). Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27582-3.
  • — (1992). Barcelona. Vintage. ISBN 0-394-58027-3.
  • — (1993). Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507676-1.
  • — (1998). A Jerk on One End: Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman. Ballantine Publishing. ISBN 0-345-42283-X.
  • — (1998). American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. London: The Harvill Press. ISBN 1-86046-533-1.
  • — (2001). Barcelona: the Great Enchantress. National Geographic. ISBN 0-7922-6794-X. (Condensed version of Barcelona)
  • — (2004). Goya. Vintage. ISBN 0-09-945368-1.
  • — (2006). Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 1-4000-4444-8.
  • — (2011). Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History. New York: Knopf.

Critical studies and reviews[edit]


  • Anderson, Patricia (2009). Robert Hughes: The Australian Years, Sydney: Pandora Press; ISBN 978-0-9579142-2-3
  • Britain, Ian (1997). Once An Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, Oxford University Press; ISBN 0195537424


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Boynton, Robert S. (12 May 1997). "The Lives of Robert Hughes". The New Yorker. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Kennedy, Randy (6 August 2012). "Robert Hughes, Art Critic Whose Writing Was Elegant and Contentious, Dies at 74". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  3. ^ Duggan, Paul. Robert Hughes—a lawyer's farewell at, 9 August 2012. Retrieved 1 March 2017
  4. ^ "'Robert Hughes was Australia's Dante,' says his friend Peter Carey". The Guardian. 7 August 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  5. ^ a b c "Robert Hughes made high art accessible". The Australian. 7 August 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d Williamson, Marcus (8 August 2012). "Robert Hughes: Forthright critic who transformed the public perception of modern art". The Independent. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  7. ^ Rose, Peter. "Up on Stilts". Australian Book Review. Archived from the original on 22 October 2008. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  8. ^ Patricia Maunder, 'Robert Hughes turned criticism into an art,' The Sydney Morning Herald 7 August 2012
  9. ^ Coombs A Sex and Anarchy: The life and death of the Sydney Push Viking Penguin Books (Australia, 1996) pp 158-9
  10. ^ a b O'Connor, John (11 January 1981). "A Provocative New Series on Modern Art". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  11. ^ "Pegram [née Woods], Lorna Gladys Hurst (1926–1993), television producer and novelist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53134. Retrieved 3 October 2020. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ Jason Deans, 'BBC4 suffers ratings tragedy,' The Guardian 5 March 2002.
  13. ^ Robert Hughes (30 June 2004). "Robert Hughes on updating The Shock of the New". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
  14. ^ "Things I didn't know: Book review". The Scotsman. 14 October 2006. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  15. ^ Jones, Jonathan (7 August 2012). "Robert Hughes: the greatest art critic of our time". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 September 2023.
  16. ^ "Australian art critic Robert Hughes dies, aged 74". BBC News. 14 April 2003. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  17. ^ a b Rothenberg, Jackie (30 May 1999). "Art Critic Robert Hughes Seriously Hurt in Crash". New York Post. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  18. ^ Maunder, Patricia (7 August 2012). "Robert Hughes turned criticism into an art". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  19. ^ Hughes, Robert (2006). Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 296. ISBN 9780307385987.
  20. ^ a b "Art critic admits crash guilt". BBC News. 14 April 2003. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  21. ^ Rothenberg, Jackie (6 June 1999). "Drug Link Eyed For Men Who Struck Hughes's Car". New York Post. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  22. ^ Hughes, Robert (2006). Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 3–33. ISBN 9780307385987.
  23. ^ "Robert Hughes". The Telegraph. 7 August 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  24. ^ Bennett, Lennie (9 November 2003). "The art of conversation". St. Petersburg Times Floridian. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  25. ^ a b c d e f McNay, Michael (6 August 2012). "Robert Hughes obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  26. ^ a b c Gopnik, Adam (7 August 2012). "Postscript: Robert Hughes". The New Yorker. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  27. ^ a b c d e Lacayo, Richard (7 August 2012). "The Art of Being Critical: Robert Hughes (1938–2012)". Time magazine. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  28. ^ Woodward, Richard B. (8 August 2012). "The Most Feared Art Critic of His Time?". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 28 February 2017. Robert Hughes, who died on Monday at the age of 74, leaves behind many admirers but few followers. The most feared art critic of his time, as learned as he was readable, he cultivated no acolytes who aped his opinions and verbal mannerisms, as did Clement Greenberg and Pauline Kael, critics of equal stature. Despite his professorial air, Hughes spurned academia and it has responded in kind.
  29. ^ Henly, Susan Gough (6 November 2005). "Powerful growth of Aboriginal art", The New York Times
  30. ^ a b "Awards: Frank Jewett Mather Award". The College Art Association. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  31. ^ "It's an Honour: Australia Celebrating Australians". Government of Australia. 10 June 1991. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  32. ^ "DECRET 360/2006, de 19 de setembre, de concessió de la Creu de Sant Jordi de la Generalitat de Catalunya".

External links[edit]