November 14, 2012

Will Barnet, legendary artist with strong Maine ties, dies at 101

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

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.

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Will Barnet talks about his art in 2006 prior to a reception at Tom Veilleux Gallery at 75 Market St where some of his work is being featured.

Staff Photo by Gordon Chibroski

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Will Barnet, The Blue Robe, 1971, etching and aquatint on Arches cover paper, 23 5/16" x 29 7/8"

Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Will Barnet, "1823," from 2008, oil on canvas.

Photo courtesy Colby College Museum of Art

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Will Barnet's "Between Life and Life," a 1998 lithograph for the Print club of New York.

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Will Barnet's 1985 oil painting “Winter Sky” will be hung at the Portland Museum of Art this week in tribute to the artist, who died Tuesday in New York.

Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

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