A son of America's heartland, Robert M. Cunningham was born on August 4, 1924 to Samuel and Anna Cunningham in Herington, Kansas. He and his brothers lost their mother in1929, shortly after the birth of their younger sister. The son of a railroad man, Bob was convinced at a young age that he wanted to be an artist. In 1942, he graduated from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, where the family moved when Bob was 12. He served as an air cadet and ultimately a radar man on a torpedo bomber in the Navy. After his discharge he attended the University of Kansas and the Kansas City Art Institute.
In 1949, in pursuit of his artistic dream, he moved to New York City where he studied at the Art Students League with Kuniyoshi, Bosa and Corbino and later at the School of Visual Arts with celebrated illustrator and teacher Jack Potter. In studies with Potter, Bob was encouraged to question academic approaches to picture making and explore his own artistic voice which led to a more expressionist style.
While studying at the Art Students League, in 1954, Bob met Jean Ratley, a young fashion illustrator, in a sketch-class. They married in 1962 and she became a significant source of encouragement and inspiration over their years together. Jean and Bob wintered frequently with Jean's cousin in the Bahamas. Here, Bob learned to love the tropical colors which significantly influenced his palette. Although he had painted on location in NY city, it was the plein air painting in the Bahamas which moved him toward a more simplified approach to his painting: bold, often primary colors (sometimes directly from the tube), eliminating the detail, creating flat, simple shapes. His technique of "drawing with his brush" directly on the finished surface results in an expressionistic approach at the other end of the spectrum from photographs. The resulting paintings exhibit a personal perspective and naturally rendered figures. Jean also gave him the lead to one of the first breaks of his career when she met an art director for an ad agency in a cab ride. The director needed someone to do men's outerwear illustrations for his account. After presenting a hastily assembled portfolio, Bob secured his first professional job as an illustrator.
A more significant break in Bob's career came at the age of 41 with an assignment to do an 8 page spread for Sports Illustrated of a sportsmen's hunt for Canadian geese. The success of this portfolio led to a commission for a horse racing poster for Aqueduct Raceway. The resulting illustration won a Gold Medal at the Society of Illustrators annual exhibition. These initial assignments led to a lifetime as a freelance illustrator for clients which ranged from some of America’s leading magazines, to companies such as DuPont, GE, Mobil, Alfa Romeo, AT&T, ABC, New York Racing Assoc.. Bankers’ Trust, US Government, Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Panasonic, Chevrolet, Alcoa and NY Telephone. He is also the designer of ten U.S. postage stamps celebrating the 1980 Olympic Games. He was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1998. His awards from the Society include: Gold Medals 1966-67, 1978 and 1980. Silver Medals 1983, 1985, 1987 and the Hamilton King Award 1983.
Bob and his wife, Jean, moved to Warren, CT in 1989 where he resided until his death in 2010 at the age of 85.
Bob had a unique talent for finding fresh ways to depict familiar subjects. His strong use of composition, shapes, mesmerizing forms and brilliant color has made an indelible mark on the field of illustration.