Robert Emerson Curtis was born in Croydon, England in 1898. His family migrated to Australia, settling in Stanthorpe, Queensland. Both his parents and two sisters painted and, for a time, Curtis studied art via correspondence. In 1918, he moved to Brisbane where he worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for the Brisbane Mail. This work funded a trip to the United States in 1922, where Curtis studied art and undertook various commissions. It was during this time that he developed an interest in the industrial expansion occurring in Chicago. He was also influenced by the work of Joseph Pennell, an American lithographer and draughtsman, who studied industry and drew links between people and machines. Curtis returned to Australia in 1928, in time to record the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In 1940, Curtis gained permission from the Department of Information to depict activities in Commonwealth munition and aircraft factories. A selection of these drawings were reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald, adding to Curtis' reputation as an artist interested in industry and commerce. In 1941, he joined the Department of Home Security, where he worked as a camouflage officer and was accredited for service with the RAAF. He was appointed Officer in Charge of Camouflage in New Guinea and seized every opportunity to record the activities of the Australian and American troops.
In January 1945, Curtis accepted an appointment as an official war artist. He covered the civil and industrial war effort in Australia, as well as the activities of the service organisations. Much of his work depicts shipbuilding, such as Army command boat in building (ART21361), a subject which gave him the opportunity to explore his interest in technological achievements. In these drawings, the men are dwarfed by the vessels upon which they work and yet are shown to be in control. The Australian War Memorial holds over two hundred works by Curtis.