Robert Spencer was a founding member of the New Hope Group, a branch of American impressionism associated with the Pennsylvania School. Spencer was born in Nebraska in 1879, but his father’s job as an itinerant clergyman meant the family moved often. They finally settled in Yonkers, N.Y., where he graduated from high school, and putting aside his plans to study medicine, enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City to pursue art. He attended classes until 1901. From 1903 to 1905 he studied under William Merritt Chase and probably Robert Henri at the New York School of Art and then spent almost a year as a draftsman at a civil engineering firm. After living three years in the Delaware River region, where he came into contact with the landscape painters Edward Willis Redfield and William Lathrop, Spencer spent the summer of 1909 studying painting with Daniel Garber, a prominent figure among the second generation of Pennsylvania impressionists.
In the fall of 1909 Spencer moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania. In 1916 he joined forces with other local artists to create the New Hope Group; these artists shared ideas and exhibition opportunities. Spencer traveled to Spain, France, and Italy for the first time during the summer of 1925 and returned to Paris for several months in 1927.
Stylistically Spencer’s work differed from that of his New Hope colleagues. Instead of painting outdoor scenes from nature, Spencer produced evocative works of everyday life centered on the riverfronts, mills, factories, and people of the Delaware River region and surrounding areas.
Despite financial and critical success in the 1910s, in the course of the 1920s Spencer suffered several nervous breakdowns, and on July 11, 1931, he committed suicide in his studio. The Phillips Collection includes eight paintings by Spencer, each representing a distinct phase of his career.