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 William Sterna Barrett  (1854 - 1927)

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Lived/Active: New York/Maine      Known for: marine, town-landscape

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Ad Code: 3
William Sterna Barrett
from Auction House Records.
Fisherman in a Storm Off the Coast of Maine
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Patricia Jobe Pierce wrote an article about William S. Barrett titled "William S. Barrett and His Mistress," published in "Yankee Magazine," 1972.

From Brooklyn, William Barrett spent many summers at Rockport, Maine. He was a founding member of the Society of Brooklyn Painters, and taught watercolor classes. From 1883-85, he was in Paris, France.

Source: Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

Biography from Pierce Galleries, Inc.:
Barrett was born in Rockport, Maine on May 1, 1854, the eldest of ten children born to Julia Tolman and ship builder Amos Barrett. From the age of ten, Barrett learned how to design and build sailing vessels at his father’s ship building plant in Rockport. By the age of sixteen, Barrett was an avid sailor and an inspired young artist who painted and sketched during rain and thunderstorms in any small boat he could sneak away from the shipyard.

Fearlessly sailing through turbulent waves along the Rockport coast, Barrett acquired a deep love for the sea. He understood profoundly what caused tides to move in and out, and how colors change with varying degrees of light and shadow, and how atmospheric conditions alter the appearance of everything in nature.

The shy, somewhat elusive Barrett was a loner. He felt the sea was his best friend, and during his boyhood years he thought he could interpret the ocean, and that the ocean could understand that he was its friend. Thus, no matter what the weather was like or how violent the sea became during a storm, Barrett felt safe sailing upon it.

From early childhood, the artist observed all of nature and sketched upon small rowboats and sailboats. This habit developed into his insistence that artists should only work on location and as he grew older he vowed not to become a studio painter like Winslow Homer.

Although Barrett was considered a fine ship designer and sailor by the age of twenty, he yearned to observe and paint the sea in a realistic, truthful manner like no one else had done before him. When his intellect surpassed his artistic talent and he could not paint that which he saw, he decided to seek professional training from art teachers. He needed help before he could apply watercolors, charcoals and oils in a manner that would represent nature authentically.

Barrett moved to New York City in 1882 to design ships for the A. Cary Smith ship building company in daytime hours. At night he attended private art lessons. In 1883, he traveled to Paris to study with Boulanger and Lefebvre at the Academie Julian. By 1884, he had studied the works of Turner, Constable and Bouguereau and he was mesmerized by Whistler’s avant-garde canvases that depicted figures walking along empty beaches.

Returning to the United States in 1889 an able painter, Barrett met and studied with William Merritt Chase in 1890. Chase convinced Barrett that his tendency to experiment with paint was a desirable trait and that to incorporate aspects of Turner, Constable and Whistler into his own style was admirable.

Moving to Brooklyn in 1889, Barrett shared studio lofts with fellow artists Harry Roseland, Gustave Wiegand, George McCord and Paul Dougherty (a Barrett student) and with these painters he exhibited at the National Academy of Design.

By 1890, Barrett was an academic painter who could apply layers of translucent color in an impressionistic manner to achieve the see-through effect of sea water. Having a quick, agile, spontaneous brush, his finessed handling of watercolors gave him instant gratification. He often applied five layers of opaque paint washes to create a sense of movement and to imply weather conditions.

His techniques excited a critic for the Greenwich Times in 1970, who wrote, “His watercolors and pastels are gems, revealing complete mastery of his medium.”

Although Barrett was an independently wealthy ship builder, he taught marine painting to students in Brooklyn, New York, and insisted they comprehend everything possible about subject matter before attempting to paint it. If they were painting the sea, then he made his students go to the sea, sail upon it, taste it, feel it and smell it before they started to draw or paint it. The sea was Barrett’s mistress, and he made certain his students analyzed her every mood and movement, so they could appreciate her as he did.

His house in Rockport was filled with fellow artists every summer. Edward Henry Potthast, George Bellows, A.T. Bricher and hundreds of other painters lived with Barrett in Rockport, and together they studied waves, tides and the atmospheric interplay between the sky, sea and shores.

Barrett was a serious technician. In one of his sketchbooks he wrote, “The seaweed rarely grows to the white shells but leaves a space of a few inches of the rich colored rocks sparsely covered with shells. Water over seaweed takes on a purplish color. The bottom is light emerald green.”

He told critics and students the most important aspect of life and art is truth. An artist must be a close observer of nature in order not to make mistakes. He studied how waves have a brownish yellow tint as they break into foam and he told his students not to paint them green. He advised students that as waves rush in they scoop up yellow sand and as they surge back and break, foam and water alike take on the hue of sand. Barrett spent all of his waking hours observing skies, tranquil seas, the calm before a storm and their aftermath.

Many critics have analyzed and praised Barrett’s marine paintings, although he shunned publicity and became a recluse by 1920. In 1903, the New York Herald noted that “there is more than pleasing strength and vitality in W.S. Barrett’s marines,” and in 1905 a New York Times’ critic said Barrett was a painter “of remarkable energy. He not only paints with unusual strength and spirit, but with great rapidity, a fact wherein lies, no doubt, the secret of much of his virility.”

During a retrospective exhibition of Barrett’s work at the El Paso Museum of Art in 1972, museum Director Leonard P. Sipiora noticed, “William S. Barrett, like Turner, captured with ease the mystery of the sea and sky,” and historian Richard H. Love of Chicago wrote in 1975, “Barrett combines Whistler and Turner with himself in paint. This is a fine achievement made by a superior marine impressionist. Yet, he is truly American in feeling and execution.”

The sea was Barrett’s challenge and his inspiration and as his curiosity and knowledge of it broadened, the sureness, breadth and authority of his paintings developed. Knowing that no man can totally possess the sea, Barrett humbled himself to conquer her truthfully and competently on canvas, and behind every stroke was a reason.

After Childe Hassam, Edmund C. Tarbell, J. Alden Weir and seven other eminent painters left the National Academy to exhibit independently in a group called "The Ten American Painters" in 1898, Barrett, Frederick and Joseph Boston, Charles Burlingame, Paul Dougherty, George McCord, Edward Rorke, Harry Roseland, George M. Carpenter and Gustave Wiegand organized "The Brooklyn Ten" in 1902, which became known as the "The Society of Brooklyn Painters" in 1903. In that year, Barrett, McCord and Carpenter founded The Brooklyn New School of Art, where Barrett taught marine painting until 1920.

Taking the professions of teaching and painting seriously, Barrett sought to be as honest and authentic as he could be in both endeavors. His sole purpose as a painter was to record truthfully nature’s fleeting, illusive moments in and around the sea.

Because of his early success as a ship designer, he was never forced to sell his art or to paint pictures to decorate parlor walls. He was a wealthy man who painted for himself, not for commercial or fame-seeking reasons and because of that fact, his canvases are consistently filled with well handled taches of paint that incorporate subtle, sensitive colors in dynamic, well-composed designs. His artistic output was sincere.

In 1927, Barrett’s will stated that all of his canvases and works on paper were to be destroyed at his death. His art was personal. It had allowed him to bring the sea into his living quarters. Each painting recorded a meaningful moment or event that he had observed and appreciated. He did not want people to fight over his work, nor did he want the public to abuse it in any way. His portraits of the land and sea were precious to him and he feared his art would be misunderstood if it was sold in various art galleries. He thought no one would comprehend why he painted the ocean with dignity, strength and vigor, and he narrowly felt the moments in nature that he captured on canvas as he sailed on his yawl, The Whim, were too intimate to share. He was wrong.

Although Barrett wanted to die at sea, he died in 1927 in a bathtub at home in Rockport, Maine. It is fortunate that Barrett’s last request that his art be buried with his body was not fulfilled, for his paintings show the world that a man was one with the sea.

In 1970, a critic for the Camden Herald wrote, “Barrett, acclaimed in his time, is only now coming to take his important place among American impressionist painters of the sea.” During the last two decades, art patrons and museum curators have viewed in museum and gallery exhibitions William S. Barrett’s robust, candid views of Port Clyde, Marshall’s Point, Crie Haven, Sunset Point, Monhegan, Devil’s Den, Fox Den, Camden and Rockport, Maine. Collectors have become familiar with the truth of the moment that each Barrett canvas explores and as individuals study Barrett’s canvases, each person has the opportunity to meet and become intimate with Barrett’s mistress, the sea.

In 1969, Ellerton Jette sold the contents of the Barrett's Rockport, Maine estate (over 175 oil paintings of the sea and shore) to Pierce Galleries, Inc. of Hingham, MA and a retrospective exhibition "William S. Barrett and the Coast of Maine" traveled from Pierce Galleries, Inc. to the El Paso Museum (TX), the Camden Historical Society (ME) to the Wm. Penn Memorial Museum (PA).

Submitted by Patricia Jobe Pierce

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