Prominent nineteenth-century portraitist and figurative painter Robert L. Newman was born in Richmond, Virginia, the second child and only son of Robert L. Newman and Sarah J. Matthews. Newman's father died when he was young, and the family moved to nearby Louisa Court House. His mother married Joseph Winston, and in 1839 they moved to Clarksville, where his stepfather died in 1844.
Newman soon tried his hand at portrait painting, but his clients repeatedly rejected his work. In 1846 he wrote to the famous artist, Asher B. Durand, requesting acceptance as a student. In his letter, he stated that he had abandoned portraiture and decided to “cast in another stream.” Durand refused to accept him, but in 1849 the American Art Union in New York purchased his Music at the Shop-Board. The following year, he spent five months studying with Thomas Couture in Paris. Four years later, he was back in France, where William Morris Hunt introduced him to the Barbizon School.
In 1858 Newman opened a studio in his Clarksville home and accepted commissions for full-length portraits. During this period, he executed pendant portraits of William Wallace Warfield and son and of Adelia Boisseau Warfield and daughter. These are Newman's only known oil portraits.
Newman served in the Confederate army twice during the Civil War. In 1861 he was elected a lieutenant of artillery but resigned after a dispute with his commanding officer. In 1864 he was conscripted and assigned to Company G of the Fifteenth Virginia Regiment.
Newman probably lived in New York immediately after the war, but in 1872 he had a studio on Union Street in Nashville next door to the studio of George Dury. The two artists attempted to establish an Academy of Fine Arts, but they apparently failed. The 1873 Nashville City Directory listed Newman as a portrait painter, but he also offered classes at his studio and in one of the public schools. Newman's mother died that year, and the artist moved to New York, returning to Tennessee only once.
In New York, Newman abandoned portraiture and focused on small figurative paintings of allegorical, religious, mythological, and obscure objects, such as madonnas, sapphos, nymphs, and fortune tellers. He adopted a highly individualistic style that was identified with no school. Though little appreciated in his own day, it was this work that provided him with his present fame.
In 1886 his Little Red Riding Hood was exhibited at the National Academy of Design. In 1894 he had a one-man show at Knoedler's in New York and partially repeated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1900 his Christ Stilling the Tempest was shown at the Paris International Exposition. On March 31, 1912, Newman died of gas asphyxiation in his New York apartment.
The Brooklyn Museum acquired the first collection of Newman's work in 1914. Major exhibitions of his work were held in New York in 1924, 1935, 1939, and 1961; in Richmond in 1942; and in Washington, D.C., and Nashville in 1975.