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 James MacDonald Barnsley  (1861 - 1929)

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Lived/Active: Quebec/Missouri / Canada      Known for: painting, landscape etching, sketches

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James MacDonald Barnsley
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
James MacDonald Barnsley (1861-1929) Canadian
Born in West Flamboro, Ontario in 1861.  Died in Verdun, Quebec in 1929.

Barnsley, a native of Ontario, studied at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts in Missouri between 1879 and 1882. His mother decided to move to St. Louis in 1875 after his father’s death and a fire that destroyed the family business.

In 1882, he went to Paris, where he lived for five years. He was moderately successful there and won many prizes for his works.  After returning to Canada, he was hospitalized in 1892 because of schizophrenic breakdown, and he never painted again.

Many of the works now in the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts were acquired during that period and included five oils, one watercolour, two sketch books, a number of unbound drawings and one etching as well as a scrapbook of over 140 drawings, the acquisition history and attribution of which were unknown.

Many of his works had been partially or totally destroyed - with purple ink, crayon and pencil. But close familiarity with Barnsley's life and work made possible an attribution of the entire scrapbook to his hand; it was probably assembled by the artist's mother, Christina Barnsley (1829-1923), and acquired from her about the same time that most of the other graphic works entered the collection, about 1911- 1913, years when the aged woman was under particularly acute financial stress. The scratches, blots and scribbles are comparable to similar destructive marks in two other sketchbooks, and undoubtedly date from the artist's derangement in 1892, when he is known to have destroyed many paintings and drawings in his studio, or from one of his subsequent periods of release from the Verdun mental hospital under his mother's care, during which his general schizophrenic withdrawal was interrupted by unpredictable fits of violence. The identification of this large body of drawings constitutes one of several major discoveries in the course of research about Barnsley, and considerably enriches the range and depth of the artist's representation.

The earliest work in the collection, and the only one from his St Louis student period, is an etching formerly entitled simply Landscape. This print served as frontispiece to the December 1881 edition of the St Louis publication Art and Music, and was probably clipped from a copy of that magazine by Mrs Barnsley before she sold it to the Gallery in 1913.

The journal's list of contents entitles the work Study from Nature and adds the note 'Etched by J. M. Barnsley. Printed by J. M. Kershaw'. The subject is probably the Mississippi River, but may be the St Lawrence; the artist was sketching around Montreal, where his mother had relatives, on a return visit to Canada in the autumn of 1880. The etching is typical of many illustrations executed by the artist for this magazine and two student journals of Washington University where he was studying. They characteristically reveal an obvious talent for line and discerning powers of observation guiding a hand, which consciously reaches out for a greater sensitivity than it can yet master.

It was in the Paris of 1883 that Barnsley fairly quickly attained the ability to state consummately the subtle variations of mood, which had eluded him in Missouri. At this point the drawings found in Mrs Barnsley's scrapbook are most cogent. Along with one of the sketch books in Gerald Stevens' collection (Toronto) and another in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, they provide an almost daily index of the artist's progress - a more and more delicate, almost timid use of pencil, growing facility in rendering and selecting detail, an increasing consciousness of the effects of light and a more refined choice of subject in order to concentrate on the moments of change at the edge of villages in the environs of Paris on the banks of the Seine.

Dramatic proof of this increased sophistication in Barnsley's painting is to be seen in an oil recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. A fine pencil drawing of this scene in the Stevens collection is inscribed Courbevoie' locating it in the Parisian suburb just north of Puteaux where the artist lived. He is at pains to capture the specific time of day and atmosphere before him; in the oil, details are altered freely, new figures are substituted and the lanterns are redesigned, yet the basic contours and composition of the scene are retained and the original evening mood is tellingly evoked.

Referring again to the scrapbook of drawings, it is discovered that this independent direction soon took the artist to the coast of France - the harbours of Le Havre, Dieppe and St Malo. We have no evidence that Barnsley knew Boudin personally, but some of the scrapbook sketches, St Malo, la plage for instance, indicate that he must have seen the great French sea painter's work in Salon exhibitions 1883-1887 and possibly in the Durand-Ruel comprehensive Boudin show of 1883.  The chance collocation of modishly costumed figures and cabanas in the breezy open space of the beach and the economic but agitated use of pencil almost certainly indicate a knowledge and admiration of Boudin's characteristic oils.

But the rediscovery of J. M. Barnsley has not added a psychiatric case study to the annals of art history. Rather he takes his place as a quietly effective painter, able to appreciate and convey precisely the tang of the harbour, the smack of salt wind, the gathering shadows of a field at dusk. His moment in the development of Canadian painting may be termed 'pre-impressionism'; certainly he fills that gap in the Canadian assimilation of French styles between the Barbizon manners of Roratio Walker (1858-1938) and the impressionist technique of Maurice Cullen (1866-1934), who studied in Paris just after Barnsley's residence there.  As the retrospective exhibition catalogue points out, he may well have influenced the young Morrice. In any case, his life's work has at last been offered for evaluation and appreciation; it may be hoped that he will soon be joined by others of his time who merit our closer study.


J.M. Barnsley in the National Gallery of Canada by J. Barry Lord, Curator of The New Brunswick Museum, //

Information provided by Charles Flint Art & Antiques

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