A leading exponent of Magic Realism in America, Robert Vickrey painted what he referred to as “imaginary realities”: meticulously rendered images of figures portrayed in stark, enigmatic spaces (as quoted in Philip Eliasoph, Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism [New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2008], p. 191). His skillful manipulation of light and shadow, as well as his deft use of cinematic devices, heightened the mystery and emotional intensity of his paintings in addition to imbuing them with a near-abstract quality. In explaining his approach, Vickrey stated: “I paint all my paintings in my head. Most of them are dreamscapes... I paint pictures that look like scenes from movies ... [and] try to transcend the objects I portray, telling you more about them that you might otherwise see” (as quoted in Eliasoph, p. 11).
Born in New York City, Vickrey spent his childhood in Reno, Nevada, until 1936, when he moved to New York to live with his father. (Vickrey’s parents divorced shortly after his birth.) As well as studying art at school, he familiarized himself with the work of Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, and other Old Master artists on excursions to The Frick Collection and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1947, after attending Wesleyan University and Yale University, Vickrey enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York, where he studied with the urban realists Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller––figurative artists who shared his love of Old Master painting and fine draftsmanship. Following this, Vickrey enrolled at the Yale School of Fine Arts, ultimately graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1950.
While most of Vickrey’s fellow students at Yale succumbed to the growing taste for abstraction––especially the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists––Vickrey, as he recalled, “went my own way." An expert draftsman, Vickrey developed a hyper-realist approach which he applied to provocative depictions of figures shown in strange, sometimes claustrophobic environments which, coupled with his painstaking technique, suffused his work with a disquieting, otherworldly mood.
An aesthetic individualist, Vickrey also set himself apart from his milieu by choosing to work in egg tempera, an exacting technique that he mastered to perfection. Along with artists such as Andrew Wyeth and George Tooker, Vickrey subsequently played a key role in reviving this challenging and age-old medium, advancing the art of tempera painting even further through his best-selling guidebook, New Techniques in Tempera, published in 1973. During these formative years, Vickrey also became intrigued by avant-garde film, ranging from Italian Realism and New Wave to the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells. In addition to making his own short films, he would go on to incorporate cinematic devices, such as elevated perspectives, dramatic lighting, tightly cropped designs, and sloping angles, into many of his paintings.
During the early 1950s, Vickrey established his reputation as a leading New York realist on the basis of works such as Labyrinth (1951; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)––one of his earliest depictions of Catholic nuns in incongruously menacing surroundings––and Gravel (1952; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas), an equally unsettling picture which features a group of children playing in a barren landscape. Both pieces were included in his solo exhibitions at the Creative Gallery in New York, in 1951 and 1953 respectively, where they were well-received by the art press.
In 1954, having participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual exhibition of contemporary art in 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1954 (a notable coup for an up-and-coming painter working in a realist style), Vickrey joined the stable of artists associated with the Midtown Galleries, which, under the direction of Alan D. Gruskin, showcased the work of contemporary American painters such as Isabel Bishop, Betty Parsons, and Paul Cadmus. Between 1954 and 1976, Vickrey had ten solo exhibitions at Midtown, achieving critical acclaim and financial success––to the extent that his paintings often sold before the opening of his show.
Vickrey also achieved renown as a portraitist, especially between 1957 and 1968, when he executed likenesses of prominent figures such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for the covers of Time––an experience he chronicled in his book, The Affable Curmudgeon (1987).
Although interest in Vickrey’s precisely rendered figure paintings began to wane during the 1970s with the rise of Minimalism and Conceptual art, he retained his presence in the New York art world and beyond, regaining an even stronger audience with the resurgence of interest in Magic Realism in about 1980. He continued to paint his “hauntingly suggestive” pictures until shortly before his death in Naples on April 17, 2011.