Robert Franke was born St Patrick's Day in Rye New York in 1928, and in 1937 began painting in oils using the paintbox that once belonged to his "Sunday-Painter" grandfather. He kept postcards, old almanacs, diaries, stereopticon slides and old theater posters and used them as part of his "memory bank". Like most primitive artists he was self taught.
In 1945, he was elected to the American Theatrical Design Union (NY). He worked extensively in theatrical set design and from 1947 to 1949 was a student at the New York School of Interior Design. From 1949-1951, he was a student at Parsons School of Design New York City.
He came to Key West in 1970. Being a history buff with a love of Colonial Williamsburg he felt Key West was much like New England, "a living historical place". He described himself as a "romantic primitive painter" who did not socialize with other painters very much because "other painters, particularly those in New York, get all caught up in records, reviews & openings---things I don't need. My studio isn't in a loft or a garret or empty warehouse and I don't paint like mad into the wee hours of the night. I paint very quietly in my own private world”