Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | My Father's House: Artist Will Barnet Returns to his New England Roots

My Father's House: Artist Will Barnet Returns to his New England Roots by Martica Sawin
by Martica Sawin

The Dream, 1990 (detail). Oil on canvas, 48 x 32 inches. The Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.

Between 1990 and 1992, artist and teacher Will Barnet (b. 1911) produced a series of paintings entitled My Father's House, inspired by visits to his sister who was growing old alone in the family home in Beverly, Massachusetts. In 2004, four of the paintings, together with their preparatory studies, were shown at the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly; the show then traveled to the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts, enhanced by several more images. Debating what should be done with these paintings, which he considers among his best works, Barnet consulted Jessica Nicoll, director of the Smith College Museum of Art, who developed a proposal to place them in the art museums of six New England colleges: Amherst, Bowdoin, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Williams, and Yale. Before being dispersed to their future permanent homes, all nine paintings will be on view at the Babcock Galleries in New York from September 4 to October 3.

Seventy-five years of living in New York City have not erased the north of Boston pronunciation of certain words from Will Barnet's conversation, nor have they erased New England from his subject matter. My Father's House is pervaded by a sense of place rooted in the seventeenth-century town of Beverly, where his childhood was spent. There Barnet's imagination was caught by the abundance of history - in evidence in the historic architecture, the active waterfront where the first war vessels of the Continental Navy were built on the eve of the Revolution, a cemetery dating from 1724 next door to the house his father built, and -- across the water in Salem -- the House of the Seven Gables, where he taught his first art class while still in high school, and the exotic collections of the Peabody Museum.

My Father's House, 1992. Oil on canvas, 37-1/2 x 40 inches. Yale Museum of Art.

His father's plain and sturdy house is the chief protagonist in the series of paintings that Barnet undertook with the idea of 'creating a contemporary mythology of New England.' One canvas is given over entirely to the facade of the house, seen head-on, with a foreshadowing of what is to come in the faint silhouette of a figure seen through the screen door. In the remaining canvases, the artist takes us inside to confront the solitary inhabitant, Barnet's older sister, Eva.

Barnet was the youngest of four children, fifteen years younger than his closest sibling. His father worked in a local factory that produced shoe-manufacturing machinery and his two older sisters, Jeanette and Eva, were employed in a millinery shop and lived on in the family house into old age. Barnet left home still in his teens to study at the Boston Museum School, after which he attended the Art Students League in New York. A long and distinguished career followed, in which he taught, ran a print workshop, raised a family, and had frequent exhibitions. In 2000 he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Montclair Museum in Montclair, New Jersey, and in recent decades he has been honored at many events organized by museums and a devoted community of artists.

LEFT: The Mantel, 1992, oil on canvas 40 x 42-1/ inches. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

ABOVE: Three Windows, 1992, oil on canvas, 32-1/2 x 46-1/4 inches. Smith College Museum of Art.

The Kitchen, 1992, oil on canvas, 31-1/4 x 44-1/2 inches. Collection of Will and Elena Barnet.

The inspiration for this series of paintings came to Barnet during one of his visits to the Beverly homestead in the early nineties. Eva, who had stayed alone in the house after her sister's death, was ill with a fever and let slip a few words about family members as if they were still in the house. This glimpse of what was going on in the lonely woman's mind led Barnet to attempt to paint his sister's imaginings as if the house encapsulated time past and telescoped it with the present. In Three Windows and The Mantel, Eva, shown alone, seems to respond to an invisible presence. Her characteristic gesture of holding a hand to the side of her face lends an air of her being closed off in her own world, as if hearing something inaudible to others.

The Father, 1992, oil on canvas, 33-1/8 x 43 inches. Collection of Will and Elena Barnet.

In other paintings we are shown what Eva is imagining - in The Kitchen, family members, dark and almost featureless silhouettes, take their familiar places at the kitchen table, the father's pet parrot perched on his shoulder. In The Father the artist appears as a boy, drawing his father asleep on a couch.

Barnet is, of course, projecting his own memories onto Eva, using her as the vehicle for his forays into the past. In The Mother he paints a youthful version of himself sketching his mother. At the edge of the same painting, he appears again, older and resolutely turned away, on the verge of leaving home. In The Vase, the two sisters, Eva and Jeanette, are reunited along with the family cat. The whole family is reassembled in The Golden Frame, as if a formally posed family portrait reminiscent of early New England portraits by itinerant artists had been captured in the hall mirror. Since it was painted after Eva's death, The Golden Frame was the artist's way of reuniting his family through a mirrored reflection of the phantoms that inhabited the house. Barnet stands in the center, sketchbook in hand. Though his family showed no interest in his career as an artist, in the end it is through him that their images are perpetuated.

The Mother, 1992, oil on canvas, 29-1/8 x 42-1/2. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.

In choosing the device of entering his sister's mind to recapture the past, Barnet evokes the New England theme of the solitary woman evident in the reclusive Emily Dickinson in her Amherst house, Hepzibah alone in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, and the countless waiting wives of sailors and sea captains. Conflating the real and the imagined, he places the viewer in the gulf between the visible and the invisible, leading us to experience the house as Eva in old age experienced it, with the past more vivid than the present. We see the three dark figures of father, mother, and brother in the foreground of The Kitchen, as if they are present in the mind of Eva, silent beyond the doorway, her hand again raised to the side of her face. Through the doorway three more rooms can be seen in sequence, recalling seventeenth-century Dutch interiors by Jan Vermeer, whom Barnet cites as his 'great hero, who could make the corner of a room seem like the whole world.'

The Golden Frame, 1992, oil on canvas, 34-1/2 x 30-1/8 inches. Promised gift of the artist to the Williams College Museum of Art.

How did Barnet, the realist of the 1930s, the painter of bright-colored semi-abstract family portraits in the 1940s and of starkly bold abstractions in the 1960s, achieve the hushed mysteriousness of the My Father's House series in the 1990s? One answer lies in his gradual progress toward greater simplicity, a condensation of form and elimination of extraneous detail. Most importantly he banished strong color and allowed only minimal daylight to penetrate the shadowy interiors. The hallucinatory effect is reinforced by the paintings' immaculate surfaces on which there is no trace of paint as material substance and no mark of the brush to indicate a hand at work. With a practiced sleight of hand, Barnet, a consummate craftsman, applies oil paint without any medium or thinner so that it covers the canvas like a thin veil. Although his palette consists of the muted tones of memory or dream, a rich tonal variation is achieved by a mixing and layering of colors so that each gradation of dark and light shimmers with a subtle hue.

The Vase, 1992, oil on canvas, 58-3/4 x 33 inches. Smith College Museum of Art.

At ninety-seven, Will Barnet's sharpness of mind, powers of recollection, and energy for painting are undiminished. His career moves on apace with honors and plans for exhibitions piling up. A book of his early drawings, including previously unseen drawings of Central Park in the 1930s, is forthcoming from George Braziller, and a catalogue raisonné of his prints has been completed. With the donation of the My Father's House paintings, together with some of the preliminary drawings, Barnet is placing these works, not only in his native New England, but in colleges and university museums where they will serve as an extension of his teaching career. In them, students will encounter a painter who has remained steadfastly independent of fashionable trends; one who reconciled his mastery of abstract form with the portrayal of subjects drawn from personal experience and inflected with a strong sense of place.

The exhibition, My Father's House, runs from September 4 to October 3, at Babcock Galleries, New York. A reception will be held September 18, from 5-7pm. Jessica Nicoll, director of the Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Mass., has authored the accomanying catalogue. The catalogue is available through Babcock Galleries, located at 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. For more information please call 212.767.1852 or visit www.babcockgalleries.com.

Martica Sawin is an art historian and critic who has been writing on contemporary art since the 1950s. She is the author of Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School and monographs on Wolf Kahn, Yves Tanguy, Nell Blaine, and Stephen Pace, among others, as well as many museum catalogue essays.

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.