Robert Gwathmey was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1903. He is perhaps best known, for devoting his artistic career to showing the identity, aspirations and contributions of African Americans and the failure of American society to recognize them. He studied at North Carolina State University and the Maryland Institute of Design before entering the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1926. While in Pennsylvania, he worked in a settlement house in Philadelphia and in the engraving room of the Philadelphia Enquirer.
Gwathmey taught at Beaver College in Glenside, Pennsylvania in 1930 and in 1835, he married Rosalie Hook. From 1939 to 1942 he taught at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and then at Cooper Union in New York until 1968.
Gwathmey visited the south every summer and in 1944 he spent time working on a tobacco farm with black sharecroppers. Throughout his career he held an interest in making art that would identify the racism he witnessed in America and help create democratic race relations. After his retirement, he moved to Amagansett, Long Island.
Gwathmey was elected to the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters and he was given a full membership in the National Academy of Design.