American Artist Bob Thompson Riffed on the Old Masters of Europe

A new view of an original genius who died before he could realize his full potential

a colorful painting
Blue Madonna, oil on canvas, 1961. Many of the artist’s works feature religious themes and are painted in the bold colors of the Fauvists and German Expressionists. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: The Detroit Institute of Arts, USA / Bridgeman Images

Born in Kentucky, in 1937, Bob Thompson moved to New York’s Greenwich Village after college, immersing himself in the neighborhood’s bohemian arts scene. Later, he traveled around Europe, where he haunted its great museums, riffing like a jazz soloist on themes from the old masters. “He talked about the physical aspect of painting, the way the work poured out of him,” says Diana Tuite, curator of the first retrospective of Thompson’s work this century, coming in February to Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. “In some photographs, he’s holding the paintbrush like he’s playing the drums.” Thompson’s early death, at 28 from complications after surgery, along with his failure to fit into a particular artistic category, contributed to his being overlooked by the art world. More recent interest in 20th-century African American painters, however, has sparked a reappraisal of his legacy. The new show, which brings together 85 of Thompson’s paintings, “is very aware that this is the beginning of the career of someone who had a lot of ambition,” Tuite says. “But he found a very personal, original style—one that can stand up alongside the Baroque and Renaissance paintings that were his sources.” 

a colorful painting  of people and the sky
The Snook (The Sack), by Bob Thompson, oil on canvas, 1961. 
  Collection of Andrew Nelson. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
a colorful painting depicting a outside party
Bird Party, by Bob Thompson, oil on canvas, 1961. Collection of the Rhythm Trust. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
a colorful painting of people
The Drying After, by Bob Thompson, oil on wood panel, 1961. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph R. Shapiro. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

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This article is a selection from the January/February issue of Smithsonian magazine