Robert De Niro Sr. Biography

(Former Abstract Expressionist Painter)

Birthday: May 3, 1922 (Taurus)

Born In: Syracuse, New York, United States

Robert Henry De Niro, better known as Robert De Niro Sr., was a talented American abstract expressionist painter. He is also remembered as the father of Academy Award-winning Hollywood actor Robert De Niro Jr. Starting his journey in art as a student of painters such as Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers, De Niro later formed his own style, which, though initially inspired by Abstract Expressionism, drew more from French Fauvism and other European art movements. His art primarily consisted of still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, with recurrent themes such as the Crucifixion. Though he showcased his art at major venues, he did not have much commercial success. He eventually slipped into depression. He died of cancer on his 71st birthday. De Niro had also released a book of poems and two lithographic series. Initially married to painter Virginia Admiral, De Niro came out as gay soon after the birth of his son.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Robert Henry De Niro

Died At Age: 71


Spouse/Ex-: Virginia Admiral

father: Henry Martin De Niro

mother: Helen M. De Niro

siblings: Joan De Niro, John De Niro

children: Robert De Niro

Born Country: United States

American Men American Artists & Painters

Died on: May 3, 1993

place of death: Manhattan, New York, United States

Grouping of People: Gay

Notable Alumni: Black Mountain College

Cause of Death: Cancer

U.S. State: New Yorkers

More Facts

education: Black Mountain College

Childhood & Early Life

Robert Henry De Niro, or Robert De Niro Sr., was born on May 3, 1922, in Syracuse, New York, US. His mother, Helen M., was of Irish-American descent, while his father, Henry Martin De Niro, was of Italian-American origin.

De Niro had two younger siblings, brother John and sister Joan. He was 5 when he began creating art and was soon enrolled in adult art classes at the Syracuse Museum.

By 12, he had his own studio in the Syracuse Museum school. While his mother encouraged his art, his father disapproved of his interest in painting.

In 1939, De Niro studied with legendary German-American painter Hans Hofmann at his summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Hofmann's lessons on Abstract Expressionism and Cubist formalism influenced De Niro's art throughout his career.

He then spent 2 years on a scholarship at North Carolina-based Black Mountain College, an avant-garde art institute, and was trained by Josef Albers from 1939 to 1941. De Niro, however, did not like Albers’s analytical style and the Bauhaus school that he belonged to.

In 1941, he quit the institute and went to Hoffman’s school in New York, as he felt more connected with his work. He continued to study with Hoffman in New York and Provincetown and later even worked at Hoffman’s school.

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Personal Life

At Hofmann's summer school, De Niro met painter Virginia Admiral, who was a fellow student there. They fell in love and married in 1942.

Soon after, they moved into a large loft in Greenwich Village, New York, where they also had enough space to paint. Their circle of friends included writers Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, actor and Berlin dancer Valeska Gert, and playwright Tennessee Williams.

In 1943, they had their son, Robert De Niro Jr., who grew up to be an Academy Award-winning actor. Hoffman, who held De Niro as one of his most talented students, became his child’s godfather.

However, soon after, De Niro came out as gay, and the couple separated. In 1944, De Niro began a relationship with poet Robert Duncan.

During this time, De Niro and Admiral continued to be part of New York's literary and artistic circles, while De Niro also worked as a guard at the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which later became the Guggenheim Museum. The museum’s director, Hilla Von Rebay, started financing De Niro’s work.


In 1946, at age 24, De Niro showcased his first one-man show, at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery. Art critic Clement Greenberg praised his work immensely.

During this time, De Niro's paintings were mostly abstract but replete with figural references. He was highly inspired by the gestural abstraction of his New York School contemporaries but was more influenced by the colors and motifs of French Fauvism and the Old Masters.

Back then, he drew more from European artists than his Abstract Expressionist peers. He soon followed his own individual style, becoming an outsider of sorts in the New York School community. Though his work had fluidity, De Niro made a lot of studies to before creating the final artwork.

By the 1950s, he had established his signature artistic style. De Niro started showcasing his art along with Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. He was also appreciated by writers such as Frank O'Hara.

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De Niro, however, was not able to sell enough of his artwork to take up painting as a full-time profession. He was thus occasionally funded by his fellow artists, such as de Kooning.

Even with the advent of artistic movements such as Pop Art and Minimalism, De Niro stuck to his personal style. The main subjects of his art were representational landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

One of his notable portraits was Portrait of Mrs. Z. One of his major still-lifes, Pattern Still Life #1, used representational subject matter as a platform for experiments with color.

His work was not much influenced by the sharp angles of Cubism. In Nude with Leg Up, he combined thickly applied colors with dynamic curves and wavy brushstrokes.

Many of his landscapes, mostly painted in the 1960s and 1970s, depicted a symbiotic relationship between architecture and nature. In such works, De Niro mingled deep abstraction and everyday images of roads, buildings, and plants.

He also often used bright Fauvist colors. One such work, Gray Barn in Blue Landscape, shows a prominent overlapping of colors with the help of thick brushstrokes. Another recurrent motif in De Niro’s paintings was the Crucifixion.

However, owing to the lack of commercial success, he decided to move to France in 1961. In 1965, however, he went back to New York and fell into depression.

Other Interests

Apart from being a talented painter, De Niro was also a prolific writer and poet. In 1976, he self-published a book of poems titled A Fashionable Watering Place.

He also released two lithograph series at New Mexico’s Tamarind Institute. One of them, a 10-part lithograph series, showcased his handwritten poetry and black and white art. He wrote for art magazines such as Art/World, too.

Later Years, Death, & Legacy

In 1968, De Niro was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he continued creating exceptional work and taught at art schools such as SUNY Buffalo, the School of Visual Arts, and Cooper Union.

In 1977, he moved to San Francisco. However, in 1980, he was back in New York.

De Niro died of cancer on May 3, 1993, which was also his 71st birthday, at his Manhattan home. He remains buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

In 1993, the film A Bronx Tale, which was the directorial debut of De Niro Jr., was dedicated to him. In 2010, De Niro Jr. announced the Robert De Niro Sr. Prize for artists, which consisted of an annual $25,000 prize funded by De Niro Jr. and awarded by the Tribeca Film Institute.

The 2014 short documentary Remembering the Artist spoke about De Niro’s life and times. De Niro's last studio in SoHo was preserved by his son.

De Niro’s works can be found at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and other reputed museums and art galleries.

His works are on permanent view at his son’s Greenwich, New York hotel, Tribeca Grill, and the Tribeca Film Center. In 2019, De Niro Jr. penned an essay for the book Robert De Niro, Sr., Paintings, Drawings and Writings: 1942-1993, published by Rizzoli. The book featured more than 100 paintings and unpublished diary entries of De Niro.

See the events in life of Robert De Niro Sr. in Chronological Order

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