Curator and early historian of African and African-American art. Thompson was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, by his father, a surgeon, and his mother, a local arts patron. He grew to appreciate the cultures on either side of the border with Mexico. On a trip to Mexico City during his last year of high school, Thompson first heard mambo, a genre of Cuban dance music. This experience sparked what would become a lifelong passion for Afro-Atlantic music, dance, visual arts, and culture. After graduating from Phillips Academy Andover, in Massachusetts, Thompson enrolled at Yale University, where he lived in Branford College and completed his B.A. in 1955. He then served for two years in the U.S. Army in Germany and toured as a drummer with the All Army Talent Show. He released an Afro-Cuban percussion album, Safari of One, in 1959 before returning to Yale to pursue doctoral work. Thompson received an M.A. in 1961 from Yale, and subsequently a Ph.D. in 1965 under George Kubler, becoming the second person to receive a degree in the field of African art in the United States. His dissertation, Yoruba Dance Sculpture: Its Contexts and Critics, introduced the study of Yoruba religion and dance practices to art history, and served as the methodological foundation for the study of African art. He accepted a teaching position at Yale after receiving his Ph.D., and is currently the Colonel John Trumbull Professor in the Department of the History of African and African American Art. He also served as Master of Timothy Dwight College from 1978 until 2010, making him the longest serving master of a residential college at Yale.
Thompson's research encompasses art from the entire African diaspora, ranging from Afro-Brazilian art to African-American art. In 1974, he curated an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, entitled, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, which emphasized the importance of movement and dance in the African artistic tradition. Thompson's 1983 book, Flash of the Spirit: African and African-American Art and Philosophy was the first comprehensive study of the African religious traditions, such as altar building and divination ceremonies, that influenced Caribbean and African-American cultures. His field research in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America emphasizes the strength of African religious, philosophical, and artistic traditions despite the social obstacles presented by the international slave trade. The more recent field of African diaspora studies developed from Thompson's publications and his research on Africa art from a global perspective. Methodologically, Thompson introduced the contextual foundation for the study of African art. Instead of simply seeing African sculpture in exclusively aesthetic terms, he underscored how the art functioned in dance and spiritual beliefs of those who created it.
The College Art Association presented its inaugural Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Art Writing to Thompson in 2003. In 2007, Thompson was given the "Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research" award, by the Congress on Research in Dance.Thompson was named CAA's Distinguished Scholar in 2015. Thompson currently resides in New Haven, CT where he continues to teach his popular Yale courses, including “African art and New York mambo."
- [essay by] Divine Inspiration: From Benin to Bahia. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993;
- [essay by] The Art of William Edmondson. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999;
- [video recording] Faith Ringgold Paints Crown Heights. Chappaqua, NY: L & S Video, Inc., 1995;
- and Meurant, Georges. Mbuti Design: Paintings by Pygmy Women of the Ituri Forest. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996;
- African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katherine Coryton White. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1974;
- Black Gods and Kings, Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Ethnic Arts, 1971;
- [reprint], Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba art at UCLA. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976;
- The Four Moments of the Sun, New Haven: Eastern Press, Inc., 1981;
- Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas, New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993;
- "An Aesthetic of the Cool," African Arts, 1973;
- "Yoruba Artistic Criticism," The Traditional Artist in African Societies, ed. d'Azevedo, Warren L. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973;
- Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983;
- and Cornet, Joseph. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1981;
- Painting from a Single Heart: Preliminary Remarks on Bark-Cloth Designs of the Mbute Women of Haut-Zaïre (Malerei aus Aufrichtigem Herzen: Vorläufige Bemerkungen zu Rindenstoff-Zeichnungen der Mbute-Frauen in Haut-Zaïre). Munich: F. und J. Jahn, 1983.
- “ROBERT FARRIS THOMPSON,” Yale University Department of the History of Art: Faculty, 20 October 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20151020060350/https://arthistory.yale.edu/faculty/faculty/faculty_thompson.html;
- Iseman, Fred. “Robert Farris Thompson: Canons of the Cool,” Rolling Stone, 22 November 1984. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/robert-farris-thompson-canons-of-the-cool-58823/;
- “Portrait of Head of College Robert Thompson,” Yale University.https://timothydwight.yalecollege.yale.edu/about/portraits/portrait-head-college-robert-thompson;
- “Robert Farris Thompson, Doctor of Humanities,” Yale 2021 Honorary Degrees https://yale2021.yale.edu/honorary-degrees/robert-farris-thompson.