If ever there was an artist whose persona absolutely screamed “mad genius!”, it was Robert Riggs.
“He lives in a museum – alone – and likes it. Keeps snakes as pets, is fanatically interested in primitive things and does all his creative work at night. He doesn’t make preliminary studies. He begins his pictures by completely finishing the head of the central figure; until this is rendered to his entire satisfaction he will not touch the work elsewhere.” So said a reporter named E. W. Watson, in his 1946 article on Riggs – “Forty Illustrators and How They Work”.
Known for his paintings of prize-fighting, psychiatric wards, military and circus scenes and lithography of epic compositions, Robert Riggs (1896 – 1970) had a highly successful career as an artist, especially in the 1930s and 40s. His famous work “The Brown Bomber,” showed the victory of boxer Joe Louis over Max Schmeling and got him elected to New Yorks venerable National Academy of Design in 1946 and he became an associate member in 1949. The New York Art Directors Club awarded Riggs their Gold Medal for Excellence every year for ten years on the trot.
Born in Decatur, Illinois Riggs ran away from home as a young man and travelled America with a circus. He studied at the James Millikin University in Illinois and at age 19 won a scholarship to the Art Students League, a prestigious school in New York. Riggs secured work as an illustrator for the ad agency N. W. Ayer & Sons in Philadelphia. His work for the agency was interrupted by a call up for army service in World War I. Riggs served with a Red Cross hospital unit in France. He made numerous sketches of wounded soldiers, and the horrific scenes he witnessed perhaps explains his later penchant for the grotesque and violent within his work. After the Armistice, Riggs stayed in France, studying at the Académie Julian, a private art academy popular with Americans. On returning to the United States, he returned to his job at the ad agency.
A visit to an exhibition of boxing lithographs by realist artist George Bellows in 1931 inspired Riggs to make his own prints of boxing subject matter. In 1933, he had a solo show of his lithographs at the Frank Rehn Gallery in New York. Then Riggs turned to the circus subjects for which he is most well known, creating a series of fifteen prints. He later made four important lithographs for pharmaceutical manufacturer Smith, Kline and French Corporation on the theme of modern medical practice. His most distinctive work perhaps, is his unflinching imagery of mental illness and domestic violence. Dark, grainy, shadowy lithographs were a vogue style of the period, but Riggs’s work had a peculiar, palpable tension, like the pregnant moment before sudden brutal violence kicks off.
In 1924 Riggs took a break from doing the commercial work he’d always “loathed”. He left America to travel, making watercolor paintings of scenes in North Africa, China, Thailand, and the Caribbean islands.
Riggs made just 84 prints in two decades, most of which were produced in the 2 years between 1934 and 1936, when the straitened economic conditions of the Great Depression made made prints more popular because of their relatively low cost.
In short his art was singular and distinctive, as grim, oppressive and threatening as the Depression era he worked in. One look and you could tell it was a Riggs.
Riggs abruptly stopped making lithographs in the 1950s, only producing black and white drawings for reproduction in print. By 1961 Riggs was a teacher at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts). He was there just 3 years, leaving in 1963.
All of which makes the sudden, massive departure of his strange magnum opus, the Legends of The Lenape Indians series (below) all the more mysterious. The series is now held by the Smithsonian, but there’s nothing there that explains Rigg’s huge shift in style and subject matter four years before his death.
Perhaps it was his final statement. Something he realised he needed to do. It was his last work.
Riggs died in 1970, at the age of 74.
A trawl though online art forums shines a little more light on Robert Riggs in the mid-sixties when he created Legends of The Lenape Indians. Around Germantown, he was notorious for his love of snakes – perhaps a throwback to his circus days – a number of which he kept at home as pets. He was a collector of European, Asian and African artifacts and his studio was stuffed full like a rag tag museum. Riggs was active in the local Germantown Boys Club where he worked for many years with an Indian lore group. He was passionate about and expert on Lenni-Lenape lore, culture, and language.
“We lived in Grumblethorpe, a historical house on the corner of Queen Lane and Germantown Avenue, just around the corner from the club.”, says Eric T. Andersen a former member of the Indian Dance Group Riggs ran at the Germantown Boys club, “To this day, I have my card from the club, and the key to Riggs apartment. Fond memories of getting painted up, making knives, clubs, dancing, the big show where we went to Atlantic City, shooting pool, putting mouse scalps on toothpicks as our trophies in Riggs “office”. In Riggs apartment: shrunken heads, african shields, spears, the boa on the railing, upstairs the Legends of The Lenape as Riggs was finishing them off hanging up overhead. I used to watch him work later, after he had his leg amputated, still going strong. It was a life experience, and I have many fond memories of that time.”
Another Boys Club member, Robert Winder remembers the “strange food Mr Riggs would have for us”, chocolate covered ants and rattlesnake meat.