Robert Carlen (1906-1990) worked as a secretary and attended evening classes at the Graphic Sketch Club in Philadelphia right after graduating from high school. He studied painting full-time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the academic year 1928-1929, and from 1929-1936 he continued to study painting in the evenings while employed at a brokerage firm.
Since he wanted to be associated with the art world and needed to earn a living, Carlen decided to establish an art gallery that would show the works of young artists. In 1937, he opened in Carlen Galleries in his home at 323 South 16th Street, Philadelphia; the galleries operated in the same location for the remainder of Carlen's life. In its earliest years, Carlen Galleries housed exhibitions of the Associated American Artists' Group and featured prints by Wanda Gag, Käthe Kollwitz, Louis Lozowick, Lynd Ward, and other print makers.
In 1941, paintings by Horace Pippin were exhibited at Carlen Galleries. Carlen soon befriended the artist and began providing him with art supplies. He remained Pippin's agent for many years following the artist's death in 1946, and was a sought-after authority on the artist's work and life.
By the mid-1940s, Carlen had discovered a painting by Edward Hicks in Bucks County, Pa. He began researching the then-obscure Quaker artist. Through contacting descendants of Hicks's patrons, Carlen was able to acquire many of Hicks's paintings and Carlen Galleries became known for handling important early American folk paintings and antiques. Among his clients were Edward W. and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Va., and the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt.
During the course of his long career, Robert Carlen served as an advisor to many Philadelphia collectors and developed an extensive knowledge of the genealogies and heirlooms of the city's prominent families. Because of his extensive experience and expertise, Carlen's opinion was widely valued and his services as an appraiser of art and antiques were in great demand.