An artist best known for his lithographs of prizefights and circus scenes, Robert Riggs (1896–1970) was one of the most successful American printmakers of 1930s and 1940s. Born in Illinois, Riggs wanted to join the circus as a child. He was educated at Decatur College (now Millikin University) and won a scholarship to study at the Art Students’ League in New York. He served with a hospital unit in World War I and then trained at the Académie Julian in Paris.
In Philadelphia, Riggs worked as a freelance artist and an illustrator for N. W. Ayer and Son, completing commissions for insurance companies and magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Fortune, and Life. Riggs openly identified as gay to his friends in the Philadelphia art community, but did not disclose his orientation to his employers.
A 1931 exhibition of George Bellows’s prints of boxers inspired Riggs to learn lithography. Influenced by Philadelphia luminaries Robert Henri and Violet Oakley, Riggs synthesized his illustrative skill with the social realism of his time. He focused on the seamier side of modern life: prizefighting, cheerless hospital rooms, and the circus. His technique was subtractive: after laying down washes of tusche, he minutely scratched away the wax with a needle or razor blade. The results were characterized by delicate gradations, lush blacks, and contrasting highlights.
Riggs was well-traveled and amassed an impressive collection of animals (lizards, turtles, and snakes), Native American artifacts, and musical records at his home in Germantown. Although he won many prestigious awards for his work, Riggs fell into obscurity after 1950, when photographic reproduction replaced the demand for prints.