Will Barnet, a titan of the visual art world who had deep connections to Maine, died at his home in New York on Tuesday. He was 101.
As a painter, a printmaker and a draftsman, Barnet had used Maine-inspired images in his work since the 1970s, when he began spending summers in midcoast Maine.
His family said the cause of death was old age. “He died peacefully in his home,” said Phil Alexandre of New York’s Alexandre Gallery, which represented Barnet.
Barnet, an art educator and a lifelong champion of the arts, inspired generations of artists and lived long enough to enjoy many honors that most artists receive only posthumously. In 2011, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for an individual artist in the United States.
This year, France recognized him with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.
His works are in the collections of museums across the country, including the Portland Museum of Art. The museum will hang the oil painting “Winter Sky” in honor of Barnet later this week.
Barnet and his wife, Elena, lived in a duplex at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. They were without power for a few days because of Superstorm Sandy, and had to move to a warmer apartment.
Barnet got “a touch of pneumonia” during the power outage, Alexandre said, but had been feeling better in recent days.
His daughter, Ona, who lives in Phippsburg, said her father visited many art galleries on Saturday, “doing what he loved the most.”
Bruce Brown, an art curator in Maine, said he had a conversation with Barnet on Sunday “that buoyed both of our spirits. His devotion to making art every day and his generous spirit extended to his friends and family in countless ways were the unique essence of Will Barnet. He … will be remembered as a true ambassador and champion of American art.”
Barnet painted until the very end. His duplex included a large studio with north-facing windows, and he spent an hour or two most days with his paints and brushes.
“It’s like life itself,” he told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in July, during his annual summer trip to Phippsburg. “To be a painter and not paint is impossible. Painting is an inspiration.”
Hard of hearing and unable to walk, Barnet never allowed his physical ailments to limit his love of art, said a longtime friend, Ira Goldberg, executive director of the Arts Students League of New York, where Barnet studied and taught.
He was as committed to his work at 101 as he was when he was a young man making his way in New York, Goldberg said.
“Will got to the place where every artist aspires to get to,” said Goldberg. “He got to a point where there was very little in the way of thought process. He was basically a conduit, when there is nothing to prove, there is no pretext, there is no pretense. Whatever comes off the brush, it is right because there is a sense that there is no barrier between the artist and the art.”
Barnet was a New Englander to the core. He was born in Beverly, Mass., on May 25, 1911. The paintings of John Singer Sargent inspired him to paint. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before moving to New York in 1931, determined to be an artist.
Employing flat planes of color, he painted stark, dramatic images, often using family members and pets as models.
As a realist, he railed against abstraction during the height of its popularity. He eventually incorporated abstract images in his work, and moved easily back and forth.
He also was a gifted printmaker, and taught at the Art Students League in New York for many years, and at Cooper Union, Yale University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
His connection with Maine emerged when he and his family began summering at Chamberlain. Barnet said Maine’s rocky coastline, tall pine trees and “vast luminous sky and ocean” sparked his visual imagination.
He said his first inspiration for painting in Maine came when he caught a glimpse of his wife standing alone on their porch at dusk, her figure silhouetted against the sea. He called it “a moment to remember. I made a sketch of the scene and began a series of paintings of women and the sea.”
Barnet was linked to many of the greatest painters of the 20th century. As a young man, he showed his paintings alongside Marsden Hartley and was a contemporary with Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, said Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire.
Bessire called Barnet “one of the most amazing artists to live and work in America — an artist’s artist and an artist of the people. (It is) hard to imagine the art world continuing without having access to Will’s engagement with every major artist and trend since 1940.”
Barnet was eager to share his knowledge. He regularly hosted guests in Phippsburg, and he opened his New York studio to anyone who cared enough to ask. For his 100th birthday last year, he participated in a question-and-answer session at the Portland Museum of Art.
Barnet remained mentally sharp, and never stopped learning or talking about art, said Goldberg.
Just 10 days ago, when Barnet was forced out of his duplex by the power outage, Goldberg took his friend to The Frick Collection in New York. Although Barnet had visited the Frick hundreds of times over the years, Goldberg said he treated his final visit as if it were his first.
“He was an empty sponge that was ready to absorb everything the work had to give,” Goldberg said. “We were looking at a Van Gogh painting on loan, and he just couldn’t stop looking at it. Every couple of paintings, he would stop and look for 10 minutes, 20 minutes. ‘Look at that color,’ he said. His reaction was visceral. No matter how old, when the eyes can see, just the energy that is conveyed through art is timeless.”
In Portland, Aucocisco Galleries’ owner Andres Verzosa showed several Barnet drawings this summer in tandem with Barnet’s granddaughter, the painter Ellie Barnet, who lives in Portland.
Barnet and his family showed up for a First Friday Art Walk event, happily greeting visitors. Verzosa was impressed that an artist of Barnet’s stature would attend the art walk and engage so many well-wishers. More often, famous artists arrange private viewings or visit during quiet times.
“Can you imagine? Oftentimes, you just know about well-known artists through their work or through an exhibition or books or articles. Rarely do you get a chance to meet them,” Verzosa said.
Ona Barnet said the family will have a private funeral this week. A larger memorial will be planned for a later date.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Barnet is survived by three sons, Peter, Richard and Todd.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: