The Other Robert De Niro

Robert de Niro, Jr. and Robert De Niro, Sr., 1985

Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr., Courtesy, DC Moore Gallery, New York
Robert de Niro, Jr. and Robert De Niro, Sr., 1985
In the 1960s, a different Robert De Niro was making a name for himself in the New York art scene.

In the 1960s, a different Robert De Niro was making a name for himself in the New York art scene.

Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr., Courtesy, DC Moore Gallery, New York

Robert de Niro, Sr., Last Painting

“I remember as a kid being in his studio and listening to him talk about dealers and artists, and the great works of art and literature he loved and I understood, even at that young age, that my father was passionate about what he did.”

Robert De Niro, Jr.

The best place to spot a real-life Robert De Niro is at the Tribeca Grill, a veteran restaurant in downtown New York City known for its industrial charm and abundance of celebrities out to lunch. No, not De Niro the actor, though he is one of the establishment's co-owners. The De Niro in question is modernist painter Robert De Niro, Sr.—father of the Academy award-winner—whose colorful artworks have adorned the eatery's walls since it first opened in 1990.

"Every piece of art in the restaurant is De Niro Sr.'s," Martin Shapiro, managing partner of the Tribeca Grill, told Art & Object of the brasserie's roughly forty De Niro, Sr. paintings. "There's no other artist that's shown. And that's really what our décor is, it's almost like a gallery. It's a permanent collection."

In fact, the restaurant is one of the only places to view this lesser-known painter's work on a permanent basis. Of the museums that have his work in their collections (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Smithsonian American Art Museum), few exhibit them regularly. De Niro is a big name onscreen, far less so in the art world.

Courtesy Rizzoli

But the artist is currently having a bit of a limelight moment, thanks to the recent publication of his first comprehensive monograph, Robert De Niro, Sr.: Paintings, Drawings, and Writings 1942-1993 (Rizzoli, October 2019). A solo exhibition devoted to the artist will also soon open at DC Moore, the New York gallery representing De Niro, Sr.

De Niro (the actor) has had much to do with keeping his father's work in the public eye. "It has been important to me to preserve my father's artistic legacy," he writes in the monograph introduction, "to tell the story of his life and his art, and to make sure that they are known and understood."

De Niro, Sr., born to an Irish-Italian family in upstate New York, showed artistic talent from a young age. His family encouraged him, pushing him towards opportunities to study at good schools under experienced masters. One of his first-ever art instructors was modernist icon Hans Hofmann, who prepared the teenaged painter to attend the experimental art school, Black Mountain College.

While there he studied under former Bauhaus master, Josef Albers–although the remaining few records suggest that an 18-year-old De Niro, Sr. clashed with Albers. (A typewritten report by Albers, still in De Niro's Black Mountain student file, notes that the youngster had a problematic superiority complex; a reputed incident also involved a big argument between the two, resulting in the student hurling furniture out of a window and leaving the school.)

From Black Mountain College, De Niro, Sr. moved to New York to attend Hofmann's school full-time and perfect his spontaneous, painterly technique. It was there that he met and got romantically involved with another student, painter Virginia Admiral. Within a short time, De Niro, Sr. moved into Admiral's Greenwich Village apartment; the following year, in 1942, the couple were married.

A junior De Niro was born in July 1943, and Hofmann was named godfather. But the relationship between De Niro, Sr. (who was a closeted homosexual) and Admiral was short-lived. The couple separated by 1945, but continued to co-parent. (Admiral, who had shown promise as a painting student, mostly gave up art to raise their son.)

Robert de Niro, Sr., Figure in a Hat with Rubber Plant, 1976.
Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr., Courtesy, DC Moore Gallery, New York

Robert de Niro, Sr., Figure in a Hat with Rubber Plant, 1976.

Robert de Niro, Sr., Buildings in a Landscape, 1968.
Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr., Courtesy, DC Moore Gallery, New York

Robert de Niro, Sr., Buildings in a Landscape, 1968.

Robert de Niro, Sr. in his studio, 1958.
Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr., Courtesy, DC Moore Gallery, New York, Photo by Rudy Burckhardt

Robert de Niro, Sr. in his studio, 1958.

Just as his family life was deteriorating, De Niro, Sr.'s career was on the rise. He participated in a group exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's avant-garde art gallery in 1945, and had a solo show there the following year. His style was different from his contemporaries, though, and the gap between what most New York artists were doing and De Niro, Sr.'s retro-looking landscapes and still-lifes grew wider each year.

In a 1960s letter to a friend, art gallerist Virginia Zabriskie, De Niro, Sr. wrote, "I know I am the best painter of the epoch and I will fight my way to the top by every honest means if it takes everything I've got." Despite his determination, he's been omitted from most histories of the mid-20th century New York School. Rather than joining forces with the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Artists, De Niro, Sr. clung to a representational and color-saturated style that referenced art historical masters like Matisse, Bonnard, and Turner. As a result, he's been overlooked in favor of artists in line with the prominent movements of his day.

The painter was unapologetically grounded in art history, fervently collecting art museum postcards and artist monographs. Many of these books still line the shelves of his SoHo studio, which has been kept completely intact by De Niro for the nearly thirty years since the painter passed. Shirts are still in their dry-cleaning bags, a red dial phone sits atop a pillar; the space is unchanged, except for some shades added to the skylights.

"I remember him sitting at the bar, drawing the bar, back when we first opened up." Martin Shapiro

"I remember as a kid being in his studio and listening to him talk about dealers and artists, and the great works of art and literature he loved," De Niro describes in his monograph introduction, "and I understood, even at that young age, that my father was passionate about what he did."

Ultimately, his was the classic tale of a tortured, unappreciated creative. Thomas Hess, longtime editor of ARTnews and one of De Niro, Sr.'s champions, wrote in 1976 that "after some 30 years of uninterrupted hard work, usually in impossible conditions (crowded small studios, bursting pipes, unpaid bills–day in, day out, De Niro's routine has assumed the shape of a classic bohemian hard-luck story), he remains almost unknown."

The artist's Last Painting (1985-93), displayed at the Tribeca Grill, is speckled with jewel-toned color and Matissean patterns. It shows a table draped with a decorative lavender tablecloth, set with two classically-shaped white vases, lemons, and a dish of pickles. Behind the table is a tall, verdant house plant; a banjo or lute rests on the floor. The scene is uninhabited–it is an image of De Niro, Sr.'s studio as a vacant still life, an exploration of colors, shapes, and objects.

The father of a Godfather II cast member, De Niro, Sr.'s talents are now eclipsed by those of his son. When De Niro used some of his film industry wealth to open the Tribeca Grill in 1990, he convinced his dad to provide artwork for the venue. The artist was already dying of prostate cancer at the time, this opportunity to design a permanent installation allowed him to create something like to a personal museum before he died.

"He also did both of our menu covers," Shapiro notes. "Our menu for lunch and dinner, and our menu for dessert. One is a drawing of the building that we're in, and the other is a drawing of the bar. I remember him sitting at the bar, drawing the bar, back when we first opened up." De Niro, Sr. died on May 3, 1993; it was his 71st birthday.

It is largely thanks to his son that his works are preserved, exhibited, and available on the art market today. De Niro has shared his fame with his namesake, hanging his father's paintings in many of his Manhattan business ventures. "We get a lot of customers that'll come in and ask about his art, and walk around the space," adds Shapiro. "We get people every day that come in, and even if they don't come specifically for the art, they're just wowed by it."

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

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