Robert Schoelkopf, Jr., was born in Queens, New York, in 1927. He graduated from Yale College in 1951 with a bachelor of arts degree and then taught briefly at his alma mater while conducting graduate research in art history. Schoelkopf began his career in commercial art in 1957 as an independent dealer of American painting and sculpture and became a member of the Art Dealers Association of America in 1958. In 1959 he formed a partnership with Virginia Zabriskie, of the Zabriskie Gallery in New York, which lasted until 1962. The gallery exhibited late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American painting, together with contemporary painting of a somewhat conservative style.
In 1962 Schoelkopf signed a three-year lease for the fourth floor of a building at 825 Madison Avenue in New York, where he opened the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery. From the outset, Schoelkopf aimed to specialize in American painting of the nineteenth and twentieth century and sculpture of all schools. He predicted a burgeoning market for the Hudson River School in particular, believing that American painting was increasingly perceived as being worthy of serious attention. In a letter dated January 3, 1963, Schoelkopf congratulated John Spencer for his decision to collect nineteenth-century American paintings for the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, assuring him that "progressive chauvanism [ sic] will operate to elevate prices in American painting. Every year more colleges teach Art History, and soon they shall have reached the level of sophistication and development where they will be obliged (for face) to offer tuition in specifically American art - hitherto neglected of academicians.... I and many other dealers have plans for exhibitions of nineteenth-century American painting, especially the Hudson River School."
Schoelkopf's instincts regarding the Hudson River School were undoubtedly correct, and consequently nineteenth-century American painters formed a permanent mainstay of his inventory. He is perhaps remembered more, however, for his dedication to reviving interest in lesser-known American painters from the turn-of-the-century who were impressionist or modernist in style. Schoelkopf developed something of a reputation for unearthing forgotten talent that, while sometimes mediocre or inconsistent, was occasionally exceptional and certainly worthy of note. He was committed to reinstalling Joseph Stella in the pantheon of major American artists, representing Stella's estate from 1963 to 1971 and holding regular exhibitions of the artist's work from 1962 on. In 1969 the gallery held the first New York exhibition of the paintings of Manierre Dawson, who was subsequently acclaimed by the critics for his important and innovative contributions to modernism. In 1970 Schoelkopf began showing the work of Jan Matulka, an artist whose work had been neglected since the 1930s, and his enthusiastic representation of the Matulka estate paved the way for a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979.
Schoelkopf's interest in turn-of-the-century artists also extended to sculptors such as John Flannagan, Ethel Myers, Elie Nadelman, and John Henry Bradley Storrs, and he directed considerable energy to furthering Gaston Lachaise's reputation as an artist of major stature. When Lachaise died at the peak of his career in 1935, his estate was left to his wife, Isabel, and in 1957 to Isabel's son, Edward. When Edward died shortly thereafter, John B. Pierce, Jr., a nephew of Isabel Lachaise, was appointed trustee of the estate and formed the Lachaise Foundation. In 1962 Pierce entered an agreement with Robert Schoelkopf and Felix Landau to represent Lachaise's sculpture on the East and West Coasts, respectively. In this capacity Schoelkopf helped to launch a major retrospective of the artist's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1964 and a traveling exhibition that began circulating in 1967.
The gallery's other major commitment was to painting and sculpture by contemporary American realists, many of whom worked in a figurative style and explored elements of allegory and classical mythology in their work, presenting landscapes, still lifes, and portraits from a realist perspective. The bulk of the gallery's exhibitions were, in fact, of work by contemporary artists, including metaphysical still-life painter William Bailey, colorist Leland Bell, figurative painter Martha Mayer Erlebacher, landscape and narrative painter Gabriel Laderman, and Icelandic artist Louisa Matthiasdottir. William Bailey was one of the gallery's most commercially successful artists, and his first one-person exhibition in New York was held there in 1968. Demand for Bailey's paintings often far exceeded his output, and by the late 1970s Schoelkopf invariably sold out his exhibitions and had compiled a lengthy waiting list for his work.
In its early years the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery contributed considerably to the development of interest in fine art photography that fostered an increasingly lucrative market for photographic prints during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1965 Schoelkopf began incorporating photography into the gallery's exhibition schedule and, in the spring of 1974, opened a gallery dedicated to photography on the second floor at 825 Madison Avenue. Between 1965 and 1979 Schoelkopf's was the only serious New York gallery dealing in painting and sculpture that also regularly exhibited photography as fine art. His interests lay primarily in antiquarian photography and the work of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century masters including Eugéne Atget, Mathew Brady, James Robertson, and Carleton Watkins. Schoelkopf organized shows examining specific photographic processes, the photogravure and the cyanotype, and presented surveys of genres such as portrait and landscape photography. In 1967 he held the first exhibition in many years of the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, an important figure in the history of Victorian photography, timing it to coincide with a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that focused on Cameron as one of four Victorian photographers.
Schoelkopf also handled the work of several influential contemporaries, most notably Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Gisèle Freund. The gallery held Freund's first exhibition in the United States in 1975 and was, for a time, the only place in New York where one could see and purchase prints by Cartier-Bresson. Schoelkopf began exhibiting Evans's work in 1966 and regularly thereafter, including a 1971 exhibition that coincided with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
In the fall of 1976 the second-floor gallery space was turned over to Marcuse (Cusie) Pfeifer, then the gallery's director, who planned to use it to show the work of young photographers in a gallery under her own name. Schoelkopf continued to hold several photography exhibitions a year in the fourth-floor gallery but decided to concentrate primarily on nineteenth-century masters.
In March 1971 a fire in the building at Madison Avenue resulted in substantial water damage to the gallery space. Although very little of the inventory was destroyed, the incident forced Schoelkopf to close until September. This temporary loss of revenue compounded with a nationwide recession cut into Schoelkopf's financial resources and left him questioning his commission policy and his level of commitment to contemporary work in all media. A letter to artist Adolph Rosenblatt dated May 3, 1971, records how Schoelkopf had become increasingly disenchanted with "all contemporary work" and would begin taking 40 percent commission on sales, instead of 33.3 percent. "Beside the matter of enthusiasm is the matter of economics," Schoelkopf remarked, "and the last year and a half have been really dreadful for the art business."
This difficult period was followed immediately by more prosperous times. January 1973 proved to be the gallery's most successful month to date, encouraging Schoelkopf to purchase a house in Chappaqua, New York, later that year. In November 1974 Schoelkopf wrote to Anthony D'Offay that business "is as slow as it has ever been, but what sales we make are big ones" and revealed that auctions had, at that point, become his primary avenue for trade.
Around 1975 Schoelkopf's wife of eleven years, Laura Jane Schoelkopf, began working in the gallery. Although seemingly dubious of the work at first, she became a considerable asset to the business and reputedly complemented her husband's relationship with the gallery's contemporary artists through her warmth and hospitality, qualities often noted by artists who corresponded regularly with the couple.
The financial instability that characterized the 1970s undoubtedly influenced Schoelkopf's decision to cease exhibiting photography in 1979. By 1978 however, his investment in early-twentieth-century art appeared to be paying off. Jan Matulka, Joseph Stella, and John Henry Bradley Storrs had all been represented in exhibitions at major museums, and sales of their work had increased considerably. Gaston Lachaise's reputation continued to grow, and the traveling exhibition still circulated, garnering far more interest than had originally been anticipated.
Although contemporary artists continued to take up the largest portion of the gallery's changing exhibitions, Schoelkopf's interest in contemporary work was growing more conservative, tending toward a narrower focus on the narrative and allegorical. By 1979 he no longer exhibited contemporary sculpture, admitting to a lack of enthusiasm for the work of any of the current figurative sculptors and a dislike of all contemporary abstract work. In a letter to Lillian Delevoryas, dated March 17, 1982, he confessed, "With age has come a hardening of the aesthetic arteries perhaps. What we have been showing is realism, but getting tighter all the time."
In April 1984 the gallery was moved to 50 West Fifty-seventh Street, and, during the years that followed, the Schoelkopfs pared down the number of contemporary artists they represented, handling only those to whom they felt most strongly committed while continuing to specialize in nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century American painting and sculpture. As the gallery approached its thirtieth anniversary, Schoelkopf's achievements were considerable. He had operated a successful New York gallery for almost three decades, rejuvenated the reputations of several important American artists, and was respected by artists and clients alike for the integrity, intelligence, and humor with which he conducted his business affairs. In 1987 he had been appointed to the board of trustees of the Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory. By this time he was also a member of the advisory board to the National Academy of Design, and in 1988 he became a co-trustee of the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
In March 1990, Robert Schoelkopf was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent a regimen of cancer treatment that resulted in a brief remission by the summer. Schoelkopf returned to work temporarily, but by 1991 his condition had worsened and he died in April of that year. Having known for some time that her husband's prognosis was poor, Laura Jane Schoelkopf had apparently decided that she would not continue the gallery in the event of his death. With the help of the youngest of their two sons, Andrew, she settled final accounts and assisted the gallery's contemporary artists in finding representation elsewhere before closing the business in August 1991.