Background: Will Barnet was born on May 25, 1911 in Beverly, Massachussets. He was an American artist known for his paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints, depicting the human figure and animals, both in casual scenes of daily life and in transcendent dreamlike worlds.
Education: Barnet knew by the age of ten that he wanted to be an artist. As a student he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and viewed first-hand John Singer Sargent at work on the murals of the Boston Public Library. In 1930 Barnet studied at the Art Students League of New York with Stuart Davis and Charles Locke, beginning his long association with the school. Here he concentrated on painting as well as printmaking, and in 1936 he became the official printer for the Art Students League.
Achievements: Barnet’s works, while remaining universal, reference his own personal history complete with images of his wife, his daughter, and their family pets. As James Thomas Flexner wrote, Barnet’s work “makes us experience the interplay between the personal and the universal.” While remaining representational, the simple elegance of the figures and their flat surfaces reflect his exploration with abstraction.
He was a key figure in the New York movement called Indian Space Painting, artists who based their abstract and semi-abstract work on Native American art. For many years he pursued abstraction in painting, then a fashionable trend in the USA. His later work returned to figurative painting. He is probably best known for his enigmatic portraits of family, made from the 1970s onwards, notable the Silent Seasons series. However, his earlier works maintain an edginess and brooding contemplation that is even more remarkable when compared with the more placid and pretty works which followed his second marriage.
Barnet was the recipient of numerous awards, including the first Artist’s Lifetime Achievement Award Medal given on the occasion of the National Academy of Design’s 175th anniversary, the College Art Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art’s Lippincott Prize, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Childe Hassam Prize. He was an elected member of the National Academy of Design, the Century Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Barnet defined an artistic career that, in the words of Robert Doty, “has always gone beyond the limitations of modern art because his work affirms a faith in life.” Barnet was awarded the 2011 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. In 2012, France conferred the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on Barnet.