Painter, printmaker and draftsman Will Barnet, a major American artist and part-time Maine resident for more than 40 years, died Tuesday at the age of 101, at his year-round home in New York City.
Renowned for his abstracted portraits and interpretations of the Maine landscape, Barnet, who summered in the Phippsburg area for decades, was a major figure in 20th century art; his name is mentioned alongside Marsden Hartley, Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns in scholarship on mid-20th century art.
He was born in 1911 in Beverly, Mass., the son of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, and began painting as a child. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and at the Art Student League of New York. In his later years, he taught at Cooper Union, Yale University, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In the 1970s, he began summering in Maine with his wife Elena Barnet, with whom he has one daughter, Ona, who operates Rock Gardens Inn in Phippsburg; he has three sons — Peter, Richard and Todd — with his first wife. They all survive him.
Though the subject matter of his paintings remained personal — his family and home life were regularly represented — his engagement with abstraction gave his work a universal theme. Later in his career, his work became more strictly figurative; he painted right up until the end, working nearly every day in his year-round Manhattan apartment at the National Arts Club at Gramercy Park, and at his Phippsburg summer home. He remained active, socially and mentally, until just days before his death.
In 2011, President Obama awarded him the National Medal for the Arts; this year, he was awarded by the French government the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. In a statement made by the National Endowment for the Arts, upon his being awarded the National Medal for the Arts, the NEA noted his unique way of combining abstraction with domestic life.
“His nuanced and graceful depictions of family and personal scenes, for which he is best known, are meticulously constructed of flat planes that reveal a lifelong exploration of abstraction, expressionism and geometry,” read the NEA’s statement. “For over 80 years, Mr. Barnet has been a constant force in the visual arts world, marrying sophistication and emotion with beauty and form.”
His works are in the collections of museums across the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitical Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Portland Museum of Art.
The Portland Museum of Art will hang the oil painting “Winter Sky” in honor of Barnet on Thursday.