BAIA BITS: Robert Neal


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

Robert Neal (1916-1987)

The story goes, according to his widow, that painter Robert Neal “began his studies when he was fifteen, and his lessons cost fifty cents a day. When he was about eighteen, Mr. Woodruff wanted him to enter a big show, but Bob didn’t have the right clothes and couldn’t afford to attend the opening.” Fortunately, that didn’t stop the prominent artist-educator, Hale Woodruff, who instructed and mentored the Atlanta-born Neal in the 1920s and 30s, from renting his promising student a tuxedo and a limousine. 

Neal entered the exhibition and took home the top prize.

This productive artistic relationship continued as Neal, upon receiving a scholarship, spent six years on the Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) campus as a student-teacher under Woodruff, who ran the art department. In the late 1930s, Woodruff, heavily influenced by his artistic relationship with legendary muralist Diego Rivera, was commissioned by Talladega College in Alabama to produce a major project. He selected Neal as his chief assistant on the project, and their extraordinary effort was the Amistad Murals at Talladega College covering three massive canvases. The artwork, painted over a two-year period, commemorated the uprising of enslaved Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship, the Amistad, along with devoting panels to the founding of the college, the building of the campus library, and the Underground Railroad. 

Rearguard, 1950, Oil on linen canvas, The Ella E. Kirven Charitable Lead Trust for Acquisitions (Columbus Museum Collection, Columbus GA)


Woodruff would later point to Neal’s indispensable role in the project. Along with painting all of the backgrounds, Neal “kept my sketches and equipment in order,” recounted Woodruff. “He transferred the cartoons to the actual canvas. He posed for all of the hands and figure gestures that appear in the mural… I don’t know what I would have done without him.”

While working for the Works Progress Administration, and with a style heavily influenced by Woodruff, Neal produced a number of works promoting the achievements of African Americans and African American artists for some of the major exhibitions of the day in cities like Baltimore and Chicago. However, upon relocating to Dayton, Ohio in the 1940s, his work dwindled and he pretty much fell out of the public eye except for a mural he did for a local restaurant. 

There is little available information on the life of Robert Neal from his move to Ohio up until his death in 1987. 

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