Born on September 25, 1945, in Hampton, Virginia, Gilbert Braddy Lewis began taking art classes at the age of seven. He pursued the arts throughout his teenage years, and relocated to Philadelphia to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where Franklin Watkins, Hobson Pittman, Morris Blackburn, and Walter Stuempfig were among his most influential teachers. In 1967, having completed PAFA’s certificate program, Lewis was awarded the prestigious William Emlen Cresson Memorial Travel Scholarship; he used it to travel in Italy, where he was inspired by trecento Sienese painters and the artists of the Florentine Renaissance. He was especially fascinated by the stylization of the figure in the work of Sandro Botticelli.
Lewis eventually enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA, now the University of the Arts), where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1974. He received a master’s degree in creative arts in therapy from Hahnemann University, Philadelphia, in 1978. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Lewis worked as an art therapist at Manchester House Nursing Center in Media, Pennsylvania. While there, he made a series of portraits of seniors he worked with; the warmth of these relationships is conveyed in the animated qualities of the images.
A virtuoso in his chosen medium of watercolor and gouache, Lewis most frequently turned to the gay male experience as his subject, including coming out, the sensuous nude, theatricality and drag, same-sex relationships, and the devastation of AIDS. Often working with models in his studio, he took a realist approach built on faithful renderings of observed detail. At the same time, his figures are generally mannered. Large-scale works on paper are characterized by linear elegance, saturated color, complicated patterns, and precision of form.
Lewis taught in PAFA’s certificate and continuing education programs. An expert technician who eagerly shared his knowledge, he additionally supported himself throughout his entire career by working at Philadelphia’s art supply stores: South Street Art Supply, Pearl Art and Craft Supply, and Blick Art Materials.
His first solo exhibition was in 1981 at PAFA’s Peale House Gallery. This was followed by solo shows at numerous commercial galleries in Philadelphia, including Rosenfeld, Gross McCleaf, and Noel Butcher. His largest exhibition, Becoming Men: Portrait Paintings by Gilbert Lewis, was presented in 2004 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York.
His work is in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, Montclair Art Museum, PAFA, and Woodmere.