Riggs' work for FORTUNE (Coney Island, and New York Police, demonstrate the high water mark of American figurative art. His hard, butch style with an edge of the grotesque fitted well into the pages of FORTUNE editorial, and also into the advertising content of the rest of the magazine. Sadly his work became increasingly unfashionable in the fifties, and in the last years of his life he was in poor health and much neglected. Through his old friend Benton Spruance he got some teaching in the Illustration course at the Philadelphia College That great supporter of Figurative Art, Philip Desind, supported him with two retrospectives at his Gallery before Riggs' death in 1970.
He was born in Decatur, Illinois 1896. It is said he ran away from home as a lad, and travelled with a Circus, providing much dramatic narrative subject matter for the future. Early education was at James Millikin University Decatur and extended at the Art Students' League in New York (1915-1917) where he arrived in time to be heavily influenced by the Ash Can School. During the First World War, he served with the Red Cross in France. He stayed in France after the Armistice and studied at the Atleier Julien. He returned to the States and settled in Philadelphia where his main employed was N.W.Ayer, the giant advertising agency based there. He developed a financially rewarding commercial career of depicting sturdy clean cut industrial types in idealised landscapes and factories.By 1940 Riggs was earning between $750.00 and $1500.00 a design for his commercial work, work it is said he loathed.
Riggs was a natural draughtsman, obsessed with Boxing and the Circus, where human beings of muscular proportions could show off their bodies in theatrical contexts. Around 1932 he had begun to make lithographs, of subjects which were influenced by George Bellows, and drawing on his own experiences in the Circus and as a Medic at war.
His driving force outside the making of images was the lore of the Native Americans examples of whose art he collected along with many examples of African and Asian art. Reports have it that his wide ranging and ambitious collection absorbed his income. "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." (E.W.Watson, Forty Illustrators and How They Work ,op.cit. 1946). His central theme, Riggs said, was "people and light"
He was associated with the Germantown Boys Club. There are many tributes to Riggs on the Internet from people who attended. Bob Winder writes, "Mr. Riggs was not only a friend to my brother and myself but a teacher also. I learned alot about myself and how to work with others and be part of a team. Being a member of the Boys Club indians was a big part of my life and I can remember many great times there. The strange food Mr Riggs would have for us. Remember the chocolate covered ants. How about the rattlesnake meat. I can remember him taking several of us to dinner down the road and the many trips to his home with all that wierd stuff(remember we were early teens). Mr. Riggs will always be a part of my memory. The shoemaker brothers Mark Haskins and many others. That man help many of us keep out of trouble in our youth."
In 1940, around the peak of his career as an illustrator, his drawings commanded $750- $1500 each, and his name was as well-known in the trade as that of Norman Rockwell. But Riggs loathed this commercial work, and after 1950 he slid increasingly into obscurity, although revered by those who knew him in the Philadelphia art world. When he died in 1970, he was almost forgotten
01 a Hortonsphere in the Wyandotte Glycol plant, advert for Wyandotte June 1950 21 x 26cms.
02 Spraying the inside of a railway car to prepare it for the transportation of caustic soda, advert for Wyandotte Sept. 1950 21 x 26cms
B. Bassham, The Lithographs of Robert Riggs (London, Philadelphia and Toronto, The Art Alliance Press and Associated University Presses, 1986)
He contributed five lithographs to his father's book, A Tale of the Illinois Country, 1934.
Stephen Coppel, The American Scene, Prints from Hopper to Pollock (On the Ropes, Psycopathic Ward) British Museum 2008
LIFE September 13, 1937, “The Prisoner of Zenda”
LIFE JULY 7, 1947, "The Duel" Hamilton met a violent death.