An internationally renowned artist best known for his place in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Nathan Oliveira worked against the grain at a time when artists tended toward abstraction, turning back the human figure at a time when abstract expressionism ruled.
Oliveira was born Nathan Vargus Roderick in 1928 to a pair of poor Portuguese immigrants who had settled in Oakland. His father died when he was young and he later adopted “Oliveira” from his step-father. After glimpsing Rembrandt’s Joris de Caulerii as a high school student, he set his sights on painting, people in particular. He attended Mills College and the California College of Arts and Crafts, and began his long and influential teaching career with artist-in-residencies at Harvard, UCLA, Cornell, Notre Dame and more.
In 1964, Lorenz Eitner invited him to join the Stanford faculty, where he taught painting and printmaking – a medium he is said to have revived – until he retired in 1995. During his tenure at Stanford, numerous artists came to study specifically with him, and he formed strong relationships with his students. As part of a four-decade long fascination with birds, light, and flight, Oliveira spent a great deal of time in a studio in the foothills behind Stanford campus, exploring the land near the Dish and working on a series called Windhover, conjuring the sense of majestic flight and breathtaking wingspans in his paintings. Oliveira’s work, including images from Windhover, can be found at museums in major cultural capitals around the world, including 30 pieces at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at least one of the over 50 owned by Cantor always on display.
Though he has been recognized with awards and elections from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was most honored by the Commander in the Order of Infante D. Henrique bestowed upon him by the President of Portugal for his contribution to and extension of Portuguese culture. Oliveira was painting up until his death on November 13, 2010 from complications of pulmonary fibrosis and diabetes.
“I’m not part of the avant-garde. I’m part of the garde that comes afterwards, assimilates, consolidates, refines.”
– Nathan Oliveira to Stanford Magazine, 2002