Robert M Cunningham

1998 Hall of Fame Inductee: Robert M Cunningham

In a recent New York Times review of Robert Cunningham’s paintings from the Carribean, William Zimmer wrote, “…Mr. Cunningham is originally from Kansas, and his native ground has been an inspiration for the flat, bright planes of color that characterize his work. This insistent abstract component is complemented by a sense of local color, proving that he is on close terms with the place.” Zimmer goes on to say that Cunningham shares with Edward Hopper an overwhelming use of light.

For almost forty years Bob Cunningham has made his indelible mark on the field of illustration with his unique sense of abstract composition, color and use of light. He has done so with admirable consistency for a client list that is the envy of any illustrator: Sports Illustrated, DuPont, General Electric, Mobil, Alfa Romeo, AT&T, IBM, American Airlines, ABC, Alcoa, Panasonic, Chevrolet, Mead Paper, Metropolitan Opera, and the U.S. Postal Service. Add to this partial list of clients, Gold and Silver Medals from the Society of Illustrators, as well as the Hamilton King Award in 1983.

One could say that Bob Cunningham has come a long way from Herington, Kansas. The son of a railroad man, Bob was born into a simple life on the heartland prairie. He has two older brothers and a younger sister. His mother died soon after giving birth to his sister in 1929. By the time Bob reached second grade, he had made the decision to become an artist. At age 12, his family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where Bob graduated from Wyandotte High School in 1942.

He joined the Navy that same year and became an air cadet, finally serving as a radar man in a three-man TBF torpedo bomber. Out of the service in 1945, Bob took advantage of the G.I. Bill and started his studies at the University of Kansas and then went to the Kansas City Art Institute for two years. Bob said recently that had it not been for the G.I. Bill, he may not have had the chance to pursue his artistic dream, proving once again that serendipity plays a pivotal role in each of our lives.

In 1949, Bob packed his suitcase and ambition onto a Greyhound bus and headed for New York City. The Art Students League awaited. He was fortunate enough to study under Kuniyoshi, Bosa and Corbino at the League. During this time Bob did plein air painting on the streets of the city.

In 1952, Bob got a job as staff illustrator for a jewelry supply company illustrating various tools used in that industry. His medium was scratchboard, a very exacting medium that bares little resemblence to the Cunningham style that we know today, however, this job served Bob well in that it gave him valuable time and freedom to develop his own sense of personal expression.

Another seminal event in Bob’s life occurred at the Art Students League in 1954, while attending a sketchclass. He met Jean Ratley, a talented young fashion illustrator who would become his wife in 1962. Jean has played an important role in Bob’s career, offering continued encouragement and an objective voice over these many years. 

Bob took a course with Jack Potter at the School of Visual Arts from 1958 to 1959 to which he attributes a change in his perspective on the art of picture making. For the first time Bob felt liberated enough to express himself in a more fluid style.

This set the stage for what Bob calls his big break in illustration: an eight-page portfolio of his work for Sports Illustrated assigned by the art director, Richard Gangel. Bob traveled to Canada to record his impressions of a sportsmen’s hunt for Canadian geese. The resulting illustrations were a great success. His second big break was a dream assignment for any illustrator: create art for an Aqueduct horse racing poster. Bob had total freedom to do whatever he wanted, as long as he didn’t show the horses from behind. The final poster won a Gold Medal at the Society’s annual exhibition.

These initial “breaks” for Bob have become our good fortune. We have been witness to the exceptional contributions to the field of illustration for four decades. Bob’s genius has been his ability to be himself: the man from the plains of Kansas who creates deceptively simple pictures that delight the eye. His pictures are timeless, and therefore will stand the test of time. Bob’s honesty and humbleness are refreshing in these over-promoted and over-hyped times. Maybe it’s because Bob has the soul of a fine artist who knows where he is going, and is always willing to learn and challenge his beliefs. Whatever the reason, Bob Cunningham has made the world of illustration a better place, and we are all the better for it.

Wendell Minor
Past President, Society of Illustrators 1989-91
Hall of Fame Committee