Robert Savon Pious was born on March 7, 1908 in Meridian, Mississippi. His father, Nattie Pious, was born 1872 in Mississippi. His mother, Loula Pious, was born 1874 in Alabama. Both of his parents were the children of African-American slaves. His parents married in 1895 and had nine children, of which he was the sixth born. The family lived at 2005 18th Avenue in Meridian.
At the turn of the century Meridian was the largest city in the state and a leading center of manufacturing in the South. The city had grown prosperous because it was located in Eastern Central Mississippi, where two major railroads intersected, the Southern Railway and the Mobile & Ohio Rail Road. His father worked as a laborer in the busy rail yard of Union Station.
In 1914 his father died at the age of forty-two.
In 1915 his mother married her second husband, Henry Coleman, who was born 1872 in Illinois. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where they lived at 2246 Washington Avenue. His step-father became a Furnace Fireman at a local manufacturing plant, while his mother worked as a Laundress. A tenth and eleventh child were born while the family lived in St. Louis.
In 1921 the family moved to Chicago, IL, where they lived at 69 Fifty-ninth Street. He attended high school in Chicago, where his drawing talent was nurtured by helpful art teachers.
In 1926 he graduated high school and was encouraged to seek advanced academic art training.
That same year his step-father died at the age of fifty-four.
In 1927 he began to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, while he also worked full-time at nights in the press room of a massive Chicago printing plant, the Cuneo Press. While working with printed media he became interested in a career as a newspaper cartoonist and advertising artist.
He began to draw black and white illustrations for Continental Features, a supplier of material for newspapers catering to African-American readers. He continued to contribute editorial cartoons, advertisements and illustrations to this company for rest of his life.
In 1928 he married his wife, Ruth G. Mitchell, who was born 1909 in Chicago. She was a freshman at a college in Chicago. The newlyweds moved to 6352 Langley Avenue in Chicago.
In 1929 he completed his second year of study at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left school to work as a freelance commercial illustrator.
Along with his steady but low-paying work for Continental Features he also painted portraits of celebrities, entertainers, and the high society of Chicago's booming African-American community.
In 1929 one of his portraits won a prestigious award from the Harmon Foundation in New York City. This official recognition helped to promote his reputation as a promising artist.
In 1931 he was awarded a four-year scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City. He moved to Manhattan and lived at 446 St. Nicholas Avenue, near 133th Street in Harlem. After completing her second year of college in Chicago his wife quit school and joined him in NYC.
His portraits of noteworthy African-Americans soon appeared on covers of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life.
While living in Harlem during the Great Depression he met the sculptress, Augusta Savage (1892-1962), whose studio was a popular fixture in the Harlem Artists Guild. There he met other important artists from the Harlem Renaissance art movement, such as Ernest Chrichlow (1914-2005), Charles Alston (1907-1977), Norman Lewis (1901-1979), Joseph Delaney (1904-1991), Romare Beardon (1911-1988), and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000).
At that same time he also met Charles C. Seifert (1871-1949), a scholar of African history, who became the artist's mentor and inspired him to explore historic subjects of African ancestry.
During the 1930s he worked as a muralist for the WPA Federal Art Project, an enlightened government program that provided relief income for artists. Pulp artists George Avison, Delos Palmer, Elton Fax, Lee Browne Coye, and Remington Schuyler also worked on mural projects for this same government program. Robert Pious worked on murals in several libraries, health centers, and schools in NYC, such as the DeWitt Clinton High School. He was also funded by the W.P.A. to teach art at the Harlem branch of the Y.M.C.A.
In 1936 he designed the poster for the world's fair, The Texas Centennial Exposition, which was held in Dallas and included a Hall of Negro Life, one of the earliest mainstream celebrations of African-American history.
In 1940 he won first prize in a poster competition for his design for The American Negro Exposition, which marked the jubilee of the abolition of slavery. The award was presented to him at City Hall by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
During the 1940s Robert Pious was an artist celebrity, whose activities were reported in the African-American media along with popular athletes, entertainers, business tycoons and socialites.
During WWII he worked under contract as an illustrator for the Office of War Information.
From 1943 to 1949 his pen and ink drawings appeared as story illustrations in pulp magazines. His work appeared in Sky Raiders, Exciting Sports, Exciting Football, Popular Football, Sports Fiction, Super Sports and Sports Winners.
From 1940 to 1953 worked for many golden age comic book publishers, such as Street & Smith, Fiction House, Ace Periodicals, Archie, Chesler Studio, Novelty Comics and Victory Comics.
In the 1950s he illustrated books for several publishers, including Grosset & Dunlap, Whitman Publishing, Harvey House, Random House, Funk & Wagnalls, and Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Company.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s his portraits appeared regularly on covers of the National Scene, a weekly magazine distributed nationwide as a Sunday supplement in many African-American newspapers.
His artistic achievements brought him even wider recognition and celebrity in his final years. He was popular enough to appear in an advertised product endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes.
In the 1970s Robert and Ruth Pious moved to a large apartment building at 801 Tilden Avenue in the Bronx, NYC, where they lived on the twentieth floor with a spectacular view of the NYC skyline.
His portrait of Harriet Tubman is displayed at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Robert S. Pious died in the Bronx at the age of seventy-four on February 1, 1983.
© David Saunders 2012