Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on June 3, 2013 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly:

Kathryn Scimone Stanko, MEd
The Art of John Pierce Barnes (1893-1954)


The subjects of John Pierce Barnes' oils, watercolors and pastels include the rivers, canals, streams, buildings, mills and landscapes, all themes of the New Hope and eastern Pennsylvania impressionists. He employs color, sunlight and shadow and the changing qualities of light and atmosphere in his works. Barnes studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1921-1925) with Daniel Garber, and was one of his finest students. Barnes was also influenced by modernists Henry Hugh Breckenridge and Arthur B. Carles at the Academy. He won two Cresson scholarships and studied in Europe. Barnes exemplifies the shift from impressionism to modernism that occurred in early twentieth century American art. While adept in a variety of media and styles, Barnes forged his own path and with time his work became more modern. He typically utilizes a form of pointillism and often with a broken brush stroke.


The Art of John Pierce Barnes (1893-1954)

By Kathryn Scimone Stanko


Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1893, John Pierce Barnes showed an interest in drawing trees and houses at a young age. He was encouraged by relatives and his teachers to pursue these artistic talents. Barnes attended high school in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, where he helped design the school yearbook. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War I and he continued to sketch in pencil, charcoal and pastel in the places he visited.

When Barnes was discharged, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts, where he won two prizes for a watercolor and a sketch. To further his artistic training, Barnes studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1921 until 1925. Founded in Philadelphia in 1805, PAFA was the first art school and museum in the United States. The academy and museum still serve students and the public today as an important teaching institution and repository of American art.

The international expositions at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the National Academy of Design in New York, the Corcoran in Washington D.C., and the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco were often the venues where the great museums of the day purchased and amassed their collections. The Pennsylvania impressionists prevailed in the landscape categories of these exhibitions in the early twentieth century and this tradition was a huge part of the Academy's legacy and student instruction.

The period between the 1915 Panama Pacific exhibition in San Francisco and the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia saw a battle and shift in favor of Modernism over Impressionism in the American art scene. It was during this time period that Barnes formally studied art. Many were initially dismissive of the groundbreaking 1913 New York Armory Show; however, this event was quickly seen as a watershed as the center of the American art world gravitated from Philadelphia to New York.

While Impressionism eventually fell out of favor during the mid-twentieth century, Daniel Garber, one of the Academy's most important teachers and painters, maintained his impressionist and realist core. Garber taught at the school for more than forty years. Modernists such as Hugh Henry Breckenridge and Arthur B. Carles, who exhibited at the Armory in 1913, also taught and influenced this same generation of Academy students, including Barnes, whose work is blend of these art movements and a testimony to his painting instructors.

The young artist accompanied Garber on numerous sketching outings to New Hope and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. According to the Barnes family, Garber did not hesitate to express his pleasure at his student's style. One cannot help notice the influence Garber had on Barnes as he experimented with pointillism. Garber was also credited with popularizing the "curtain effect" as seem in several of Barnes' works, such as Secluded. The viewer looks through a foreground of foliage, often with water and light reflections against a backdrop of trees and buildings. Garber's instruction and emphasis in the use of light and detail is also evident in Barnes' works.

Barnes exhibited watercolors at the Philadelphia 19th Annual Watercolor and Miniature Exhibition in 1921 and pastels at the 20th Annual Watercolor and Miniature Exhibition in 1922. He quickly became an award-winning student. In 1923 Barnes was awarded a Cresson Traveling Scholarship and in 1924 he won the 2nd Toppan Prize for Mother Barnes, a figurative painting of his wife Lola.

The country Summer School of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was located in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, about thirty miles west of Philadelphia. The increased demand for plein air landscape paintings in the early twentieth century was an important factor in its establishment. The buildings of this country school provided a bounty of subjects for students. The school closed in 1952; although it changed owners and names several times in past decades, it remains dedicated to the arts in the region.

Barnes studied, painted and exhibited at the Summer School in Chester Springs, and its natural beauty can be found in his work. He found that the resiliency of pastels made it a suitable and enduring media for works he created outdoors. Many of Barnes' pastels exemplify his use of the vibrant fauve palette. PAFA instructor Arthur B. Carles was known to critique student work at the country school, and his love of color and modernist influences are evident in Barnes' work. The hillsides and broad expanses also show the influence of the French impressionists and the emphasis on plein air landscapes.

An important part of the PAFA student experience was study in Europe. The coveted Cresson travel awards enabled Academy students who possessed the necessary merit to make the trip abroad to study and visit the world's great museum collections, and no doubt meet some of the great living impressionists as well. The scholarship was limited to the summer vacation, a period of four months, from June to September, so that students could return to the Academy for study during the ensuing school year. Upon recommendation of the Committee of Instruction, the Board of Directors might, in the case of exceptional merit, permit a student to receive a second Cresson Scholarship. Barnes' first Cresson Scholarship in 1923 and his second award in 1924 enabled him to study in France, Holland and Belgium.

Numerous portraits in the Barnes collection demonstrate the fact that figure studies were an important part of the PAFA curriculum. A charcoal sketch Barnes created of his instructor Arthur B. Carles is found in the collections of the Pennsylvania Academy. Barnes also created several stunning nudes in the pointillist style. Early teachers such as Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz were known for their emphasis on anatomy instruction, which sometimes stirred controversy. Given the conventions of the time, women students at PAFA in the early years were not permitted to participate in anatomy classes. Surely this is one reason that women, such as Mary Cassatt who was instrumental in bringing pastels to the forefront of American art, traveled to Europe to study, where cultural mores were a bit more relaxed.

In the early 1920s Barnes contracted sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica) and he suffered with this condition for the remainder of his life. Unlike some of his better-known classmates such as Francis Speight and Benjamin Badura, Barnes left his painting easel to pursue design work. Up to the time of his death in 1954, Barnes was employed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in the Victor Design Division in Camden, New Jersey. He is credited with designing one of the early RCA logos as well as the General Electric (GE) logo still used today.

Barnes traveled quite far each day from Springfield, Pennsylvania, in Delaware County to RCA in Camden. He took the trolley, train and ferry to get to work and back home. Woodmere Museum houses a painting entitled Sunset, which is a colorful view of the 1940 Philadelphia skyline from Camden NJ where Barnes worked. Barnes was precise and deliberate when he painted. His son recalls that his father would spend what would seem to be an extremely long time looking at his easel, only then to add just one tiny stroke with his brush. One can only wonder where his art would have taken him had he been able to devote himself full time to the easel.

Barnes created colorful landscape pastels in the 1920s from settings in Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties of Pennsylvania. Many were done on sandpaper, popularized by several artists and instructors of the time, and it is one of the reasons the colors remain so vibrant after eighty years. Some of his oil paintings, dating from the same time, were executed in Europe, but most were done in eastern Pennsylvania. While the Delaware River was a prime subject for Barnes, he also painted in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, where Pennsylvania painter Edward Redfield had a home that many artists used as a retreat to paint.

In light of Barnes' academic history and role as an award-winning student, the relatively small but competent body of work he created is truly noteworthy. While it is regrettable that Pennsylvania artist John Pierce Barnes did have the health and longevity to produce a large oeuvre, it is fortunate that the public has been able to enjoy and appreciate the work he did create in museum exhibitions since 2008. The Barnes art was exhibited at the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio, Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, and in Camden, New Jersey.


About the author

Kathryn Scimone Stanko has been curator of the family estate art of John Pierce Barnes since 2007. She was guest curator for exhibitions at the Butler Institute of American Art, Woodmere Art Museum and Noyes Museum of Art. Ms. Stanko also wrote about Barnes, History Reclaimed, in the June 2012 issue of Pastel Journal. She has a master's degree from the University of South Alabama and is a graduate of the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia. An artist and educator, she is a member of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. The daughter -in-law of John Pierce Barnes was her first grade teacher.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on June 3, 2013 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on June 2, 2013. A version of the essay was published in the Vol. XXII No. 2 2010 issue of American Art Review.

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