Painter-sculptor Hugo Robus was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1885. He was a young student at the Cleveland School of Art, where he also was employed manufacturing jewelry, tableware and ivories. He continued his artistic education at the National Academy of Design under Emil Carlsen (1853-1932) and Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), and later attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, from 1912 to 1914. While in Paris, he saw the 1912 Futurist exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune; the exhibition transformed Robus’ perception and he soon began painting works influenced by Cubism, Futurism and Synchromism.
After completion of his studies, Robus returned to the United States in 1914. He began teaching painting at the Modern Art School in New York shortly thereafter. After leaving the school in 1918, he painted briefly, but by 1920 devoted his time almost exclusively to sculpture, working primarily in isolation and supporting his family through the sale of crafts. He modeled sleek figurative sculptures and cast them in plaster, silver and bronze. Robus had not worked with moulds since his studies under Bourdelle in Paris. A former studio assistant to Auguste Rodin, Bourdelle later became the preeminent French sculptor of the early 20th century and an important figure in the Art Deco movement. Robus greatly admired his professor during his five months of study and considered Bourdelle to be the ultimate defender of archaism in art. Robus was fascinated by both music and dance and was particularly impressed by Bourdelle’s bas-reliefs for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Bourdelle’s great influence on Robus is apparent in the curvilinear and sinuous forms that emerged in his sculpture created throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The continuous, curving contour of his best-known work is the bronze sculpture, "Girl Washing Her Hair," 1933 (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.321), which reflects the arc of the female figure in the polished metal base to form a complete circle. This synthesis of motion with simple solid form would become known as the central motif of Robus’ sculpture.
Another notable feature of works by Robus are the expressive, stylized faces of his figures. These are evocative of the Japanese Nō drama masks that he first encountered in the 1926 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown by the Provincetown Players. Since most of Robus’ sculptural figures are women, he concentrated on female Nō masks, availing himself of their articulated concavity to convey expressions ranging from rage to embarrassment, delight and despair. It was a bold, ongoing cross-cultural experiment by Robus which defined his signature oeuvre.
Robus did not show his work publicly until the 1930s, when his work achieved "the sweeping contours and highly polished sleekness of his mature style" (Falk). He received awards from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1942) and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1950 and 1953), among others. He exhibited in many group exhibitions at museums throughout the country and achieved his first major solo museum exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1958. In 1963, toward the end of his life, Hugo Robus had his first solo exhibition at Forum Gallery, who had shown his work since the gallery first opened. After his death in 1964, the artist was awarded a traveling retrospective organized by the Smithsonian Institution.