Before she met the painter Will Barnet, Elena Ciurlys unknowingly prepared to become the subject for his paintings. She studied dance in Vienna, and learned how to present herself with grace and elegance.

She arrived in New York after World War II, and met Barnet at the Arts Students League. The couple married and began spending time on the coast of Maine at Chamberlain. At dusk one evening, Will Barnet caught a glimpse of his wife standing alone on the porch, her figure silhouetted against the sea. He made a quick sketch of his strong, proud wife as she stood straight and tall and cast her gaze across the water. The image became a recurring motif in his paintings, which have been shown in museums around the world.

Elena Barnet, 93, the daughter of a scholar and a concert pianist from Lithuania, died Oct. 10 in Brunswick. She was a longtime resident of New York, who spent her summers in Maine – in Chamberlain for many years and also in Phippsburg, where daughter Ona Barnet operates an inn.

Ellie Porta-Barnet, also a painter, said her grandmother’s water’s-edge pose was natural. The family enjoyed coming to Maine, which became an influence in Barnet’s work and the eventual home for future generations of Barnets. “She loved being in Chamberlain out there on the point, with the open sea and wind in her face. She loved standing on the deck and how expansive it felt,” Porta-Barnet said. “I imagine it reminded her of home.”

She was born July 24, 1923 in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her career in dance took her to Vienna, Austria. After World War II, her parents arranged for her to emigrate to United States because they worried about her life under Soviet rule. She came to the United States through Ellis Island in 1947, living with relatives in New York.

She danced professionally in the United States, and met Barnet in 1953 through their mutual association at the Arts Students League. They married within three months of meeting. She became a stepmother to her husband’s three sons from a previous marriage, and gave birth to Ona in 1954.


In New York, they lived above the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park. Barnet easily fell into the rhythm of New York’s creative community, surrounded by artists, musicians and writers, while also pursuing her own interests. Barnet earned her undergraduate degree from the New School and a master’s in social work at Hunter College. She worked for many years at Memorial Sloan Kettering as a social worker.

When the grandkids visited New York from Maine, Will and Elena Barnet entertained with what Will Porta called “mind-expanding” experiences. “My grandmother was very knowledgeable and appreciative of art, but our discussions also trended toward politics and history, with her experience coming to this country and growing up in an occupied country during World War II,” Porta said. “Politics especially. She would carve out a portion of the morning or afternoon to read one or more newspapers. They subscribed to The New York Times, the New Yorker, The New York Times Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal.”

She enjoyed being attached to the art world, and liked sitting – or standing – as a subject for her husband’s paintings.

“She loved it,” Porta-Barnet said. “She used to model for a dance troupe for some ads when she first was in New York. She didn’t at all mind sitting for him and being his subject. She always supported him and always appreciated being a part of his work.”

Will Barnet died in November 2012.

Andres Verzosa, interim director of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, knew Barnet as gracious and fiercely loyal to her husband and his work. She always looked out for his best interests personally and professionally, he said. Verzosa became friendly with the family a few years ago, after he arranged an exhibition of art work by Will Barnet and his granddaughter at Verzosa’s now-closed Portland gallery. Elena Barnet called Verzosa to thank him for supporting her husband and granddaughter. She was so pleased with the show, she asked Verzosa to choose a drawing by Will Barnet to keep for himself.


“It was magical,” Verzosa said. “She could not have been more graceful or more kind. I couldn’t believe it.”

After her husband died in 2012, Barnet stayed in New York and promoted his career through the Will Barnet Foundation. After her summer in Phippsburg this year, she stayed in Maine, moving into an assisted living apartment in Brunswick.

She is survived by her daughter Ona and her husband, Randall Gowell of Phippsburg; stepsons Peter, Richard and Todd Barnet and their families; grandson Will Porta and his spouse, Roslyn Gerwin; granddaugher Ellie Porta-Barnet and her spouse, Andrew Rice; and a great-granddaughter, Willa Rice.

She and her husband are buried at Trinity Wall Street Cemetery at Broadway and 155th Street in New York.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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