Oliveira was born in 1928 in Oakland, California, to a family of Portugese immigrants. He studied painting and printmaking at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland, and in the summer of 1950 with Max Beckmann at Mills College in Oakland. After two years in the U.S. Army as a cartographic draftsman, he began teaching painting in 1955 at CCAC and drawing and printmaking at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Since then he has had guest teaching appointments at many art schools and universities. He held a tenured teaching position at Stanford University from 1964 until he retired in 1995. He lives in Stanford, California.
“Nathan Oliveira’s passion is for continuing an inner-directed artistic tradition attached to the human subject… . The evocation of mystery that the viewer experiences in Oliveira’s work derives from a depth of feeling refracted through artistic tradition and transmitted to the spectator by the artist’s hand,” wrote Peter Selz in a catalog essay for Oliveira’s 2002 painting and printmaking retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art, California (traveling to the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, and three other museums).
Oliveira was a friend of Richard Diebenkorn and the other Bay Area Figurative artists, but he was somewhat younger and his work did not fit exactly into their aesthetic. Oliveira’s approach was more emotional, and more influenced by European painting. He studied with Max Beckman, and admired Edvard Munch, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Bacon.
In 1959 Oliveira was the youngest painter included in the important exhibition “New Images of Man” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A survey of ﬁve years of his paintings and works on paper was shown at the Art Gallery of the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1963, and a ﬁfteen-year survey of his paintings was organized by the Oakland Museum of California in 1973. He had a print retrospective in 1980 at California State University, Long Beach, and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco organized a survey of his work in monotype in 1997. Oliveira was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994 and has received many other awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two honorary doctorates, and, in 2000, membership in a distinguished order conferred by the government of Portugal. His work is in the collections of many museums, among them the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is represented by the DC Moore Gallery, New York, the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Washington, DC, and the John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco.
Oliveira’s art is sensual. It appeals to the senses. And in this group of works, the sense of humanity, especially female humanity, is weighty and strong.