|As was true for countless American artists visiting Europe in the early 1900s, groundbreaking works by Paul Cézanne and the Cubists were revelations to the young Herbert Barnett. Cézanne, he noted, established a new “classical order of volumes,” while Pablo Picasso created “excitement, drama, and even shock” through his reinterpretation of natural shapes. Reconciling those innovations with his training in traditional realism would be Barnett’s life’s work, both as an artist and inspirational teacher.|
Though he never abandoned representational forms for the pure abstraction that dominated mid-century American art, Barnett’s fractured planes, bold colors, and pure spontaneity of brushwork clearly delineated him as a modernist, garnering respect from curators and fellow painters alike.
Born in Cranston, Rhode Island in 1910, Herbert Barnett benefited from a close proximity to New England’s prestigious art schools and teachers. While still in high school, he was able to study evenings at the Rhode Island School of Design, and take private lessons from established painters each summer in the Boothbay Harbor, Maine and Rockport, Massachusetts art colonies.
By the time he entered the Boston Museum School in 1927, the teenager’s technically brilliant landscapes had already earned him a one-man show at Boston’s highly regarded Grace Horne Galleries, where he would continue to exhibit until 1943. The gallery was also home to celebrated artists like Karl Zerbe and Edmund Tarbell, who along with Frank Benson, was one of Barnett’s early teachers.
The influence of those noted American Impressionists can be seen in the dreamy lyricism of Barnett’s initial body of work; but he ultimately felt that their approach, though laudable, proffered just a “sparkling imitation of sunlight in an almost volumeless world.” Wanting to learn how to “take my painting apart” before forging ahead, Barnett moved to Europe for three years after graduation to study the techniques of both the Old Masters and avant-garde modernists.
Paul Cézanne and the Cubists would prove endlessly fascinating.
“If your work is ninety-percent shape and ten-percent volume, you’re an abstract painter,” wrote Barnett. “Conversely, a preponderance of volume will bring you dangerously close to conservatism. This is originality: no two people handle volume and shape in exactly the same way.”
After returning to the United States, he was further influenced by inventive American painters like John Marin, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and most notably, fellow New Englander Marsden Hartley. Dividing his time between coastal Rockport, Massachusetts and New York City, Barnett earned the respect and camaraderie of many of his contemporaries. Accomplished landscape painter Aldro Hibbard was a former teacher of Barnett’s, calling him the best paint handler he had ever seen.
In 1937, Barnett had his first show at Contemporary Arts, Inc. in New York City - a gallery that had introduced such artists as Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, and Alice Neel – and would go on to have eight one-man shows, four at museums, in the following five years.
In 1940, the newly married Barnett accepted a position as head of the museum school at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, although it meant a loss of independence. He would teach for the rest of his life, a decision the artist would never regret according to his son Peter:
“Artist-teachers find it notoriously difficult to sustain their own art, and at the time, my father was making a living at painting. But he also had a genuine commitment to teaching, and his painting was drawing increasingly upon art history: teaching and painting in an environment of an outstanding museum collection was a major incentive in his decision to move to Worcester.”
From paintings of the Italian Renaissance Barnett mastered both figure placement and centuries-old techniques of tonal under-painting and translucent glazes; but he made everything look fresh and modern with his quick black outlines and rapid brushstrokes.
“Barnett believed that boldness and spontaneity can occur only when the artist is not worried about spoiling a piece of canvas,” wrote American Artist contributing editor Charles Movalli in a 1990 article on Barnett.
That spontaneity can’t be missed in View through the Willows of Plainfield, Vermont (1944), on view in the Childs exhibit. As noted art critic Henry McBride wrote about Barnett’s nature scenes of this period, “At first glance the landscapes . . . appear to be abstractions, until the eye is released from the exciting painting surface; then the color shifts and blends and one experiences the sensation of a very real Vermont countryside.”
Though he might have eschewed the Impressionists’ “imitation of sunlight” early on, Barnett became a master at capturing its power to grasp or deflect objects in its path, whether en plein air or in tantalizing table settings with their juicy color palettes and delicious fare.
Barnett always considered drawing to be of equal importance to painting, with many fine examples in the Childs show. The black ink and wash nature scenes provide added clues to his compositional process, with studies for possible still lifes also quite revealing.
Barnett’s work is represented in many prestigious museums throughout the country including The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, DC; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts, Philadelphia; the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; and The Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio.
The artist’s son Peter Barnett will be available for questions at a gallery reception on June 13th from 6:00 – 8:00 PM. The public is invited.