Behind the doorway of a nondescript house near the northern border of SoHo and up six flights lies an undisturbed patch of 1950s American bohemia. There are two large airy spaces, one lined with art books and volumes by Apollinaire, Ibsen, Valéry, Proust, and O’Neill and the other containing three sturdy easels, a daybed, and a closet-size empty birdcage. A small front bedroom is plastered with faded posters and postcards of works by the greats—Leonardo, Ingres, Courbet, Bonnard, van Gogh—along with a framed honorary degree from Briarwood College, awarded to Robert De Niro Sr., whose drawings and paintings cover the walls of the other two rooms in chaotic profusion.
The entire space is preserved as a kind of time capsule by De Niro’s son, the actor Robert De Niro Jr. “My mother lived here, and then she moved to another studio and gave this to my father,” says De Niro Jr. as he shows a visitor the rooms where his father lived and worked until 1993, when he died of cancer at the age of 71.
“He was here at least 15 years,” De Niro continues. “I changed a couple of things, but it’s about 90 percent the way it was. I preserved it mainly for my kids, especially my younger kids, because I wanted them to be able to see what their grandfather did and how he worked.”
Evidence of the artist’s day-to-day life includes a closet filled with clothes still in dry cleaner’s bags, tubes of uncapped paint scattered across a table, primed canvases, and unfinished paintings on the easels. It’s as if the artist had just nipped downstairs to run some errands.
Born in Syracuse in 1922, De Niro Sr. studied with some of the outstanding teachers of his generation, including Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, to which he won a scholarship in 1939, and Hans Hofmann in the decade following. It was at Hofmann’s Eighth Street school in New York that De Niro met a painter seven years his senior, Virginia Admiral, who became his wife. The young couple traveled in a circle of Greenwich Village luminaries that included Anaís Nin, Henry Miller, Robert Duncan, and Tennessee Williams. (Admiral, in fact, earned money as a typist for Nin, transcribing her notoriously erotic diaries.)
Robert Jr. was born in 1943, when his father was only 21, but the presence of a baby didn’t put a crimp in the couple’s lifestyle, which included summers in Provincetown, where De Niro continued to study with Hofmann, supporting the family by waiting tables with Williams or working in a factory cleaning fish. Though De Niro and Admiral separated when their son was three, they remained on amicable terms throughout their lives.
De Niro had his first solo show in 1945, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, and he continued to exhibit through the ’50s at the Charles Egan Gallery, alongside artists like Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Franz Kline. Unlike many of his better-known peers, De Niro never totally abandoned the high-art tradition: nudes, still lifes, and idyllic landscapes were his preferred subjects.
He “works with Parisian assumptions, from Matisse back through the great moments of European culture and forward to his own particularized New York imagery,” the late critic Thomas B. Hess, former editor of ARTnews, wrote in New York magazine in 1976. “He confines his colors and formats within the civilizing borders of oil paints on canvas frames.”
The De Niro estate is now represented by DC Moore Gallery in New York, which recently acquired a cache of uninventoried works described by gallery president Bridget Moore as “a beautiful selection of pieces from different periods.” Paintings sell for $18,000 to $200,000; works on paper from $1,500 to $30,000. A show is planned for early next year.
Robert Jr., who lived mostly with his mother as a child, remembers being asked to pose for his father but “didn’t have the patience to sit still.” His cousin Jean De Niro, though, who is now a professor of communication at New York University, modeled for the artist when she was in her late 20s. “I sat on this chair, and he was doing some of these very classical things that you’d think a painter would do, like putting his thumb out. I thought it was comical,” she recalls. “Then all of a sudden he took his paints and brushes, and I don’t want to say he attacked the canvas, but it was explosive. He completed the painting in a very short period of time. I felt like the brush was right on me.”
Hess described the artist as “tall, saturnine, given to black trench coats, his face as sharp as a switchblade—with a temperament to match.” But both Robert Jr. and his cousin remember a lighter side to the artist’s personality. A bicycle leaning against the enormous birdcage in the studio gives evidence of a man who succumbed to quirky passions. “He had two huge, squawking parrots,” Jean recalls, “and when you called him on the phone, you could not hear him talk because they were so loud.” She also remembers helping her uncle sneak a pet rabbit onto a plane in the days before heightened airport security.
For his part, De Niro Jr. regrets not being more interested in art when he was younger, but he was attracted to acting from an early age. “My parents were supportive,” he says, “but they didn’t push me in any way. Nonetheless, they would have preferred my being an actor as opposed to, say, an insurance salesman.” Admiral eventually launched a successful secretarial service and worked for the wife of Erwin Piscator, who founded the dramatic workshop at the New School, where De Niro Jr. took classes as a teenager. “I’m not qualified to say anything about art,” he demurs. “You look at it and you like it. My father was much more judgmental about what art should be.”
The judgmental part of him would no doubt be delighted that his son has just established an award of $25,000 to be given annually to midcareer artists under the auspices of the Tribeca Film Institute. A selection committee of art professionals has yet to be determined, but it is hoped that the prize will draw attention to artists whose work has been underrecognized by the art world.
“It’s also a way of my getting more involved,” says De Niro, “because I just never have been that much into the art scene, other than my father’s work.”