Matthew Barnes

Matthew Barnes was a self-taught artist, known as a modernist painter who employed surrealistic techniques and themes, and unhampered by the necessity to please. His paintings were usually dark scenes with the presence of strange figures, stemming from the old Scottish folk-lore that was part of his childhood.

Barnes was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1880. At a young age he was apprenticed to a commercial craftsman who produced and designed the ornamental plaster-work on and in buildings. Barnes moved to New York in his early twenties with his parents. However, after only a few months, he made his way west to San Francisco, California, arriving shortly after the city's infamous fire and earthquake of 1906. During San Francisco's reconstruction period, Barnes used his early training in plaster-work to help rebuild the city. During his time in San Francisco he began painting. Barnes made no attempt to join a formal art school or to conform to their academic rules. His spare time was devoted to painting.

In 1916, his first works were exhibited in the Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. His fellow artists realized his talent, but the local art critics gave him little notice. However, in 1919, that changed with his first review. During the 43rd Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association, his oil titled "Butchertown," and a pastel titled "Boat House" were exhibited. Willard Huntington Wright, internationally known art critic, wrote of Barnes' work in his article "Vital Tendencies in Modern Art Methods" in the San Francisco Bulletin on March 29th, 1919. His work was also praised in the International Studio in June of the same year by art critic John Norton. Eight years later, he received an honorable mention for "The Flood" at the Art Association's annual exhibition.

Although relatively unknown to press and public, Barnes' progressive fellow artists invited him to become a charter member of the co-operative Modern Gallery, which was instituted as a means of bringing the younger artists to the notice of the critics and art patrons. Similarly, with the new East-West Gallery in the Western Women's Club, Barnes was also given that opportunity. His first one-man show was sponsored by the Modern Gallery where he exhibited paintings selected from his works over a period of eighteen years.

Barnes began to receive regular praise from critics with multiple write-ups in publications such as the Argonaut, the Argus, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Francisco Examiner in the late 1920s. Barnes' work achieved an immediate vogue, particularly in the Bay Region. The Art Digest of New York, a magazine of national reputation, reprinted an article on Barnes from the Argus in early 1929 which named him a "modernist," "individualist" and "imagist." The Art Digest titled the article, "A Lone Wolf on a Lone Trail" and gave national recognition to the obscure San Francisco painter.

In 1931 and 1932 when Diego Rivera visited California and executed several controversial mural decorations, Barnes assisted him in the technical preparation and application of the plaster, as well as working under him on various areas. During 1932, Barnes continued to exhibit his work, with one show going to Oakland and Los Angeles, prompting another article, this time in the Los Angeles Times.

Barnes was part of a group who called themselves the "Society of Progressive Artists" which exhibited in the City of Paris Galleries in 1933. The group exhibition lead to his second one-man show, generating much praise and debate. As a result, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited a small collection of his canvases. By 1934, the Portland Museum had included Barnes in their selection of the fifty greatest American painters; the Marguery Hotel exhibit in New York displayed five of Barnes' canvases; the New York press had reviewed and reproduced his works; and George Luks had called him "one of our most vigorous living painters." His works became part of private collections in Chicago and New York.

Barnes continued exhibiting and became a well-known artist in the national art community. Except for brief trips to New York and Central America, Barnes has made San Francisco his home for thirty years. In these thirty years he has produced less than fifty finished pictures.

During the span of one year, he lost his wife and suffered a stroke, and in 1951, committed suicide in San Francisco.

Member: San Francisco Art Association.

Exhibited: San Francisco Art Association: Union Iron Works, 1916; Second and Third Jury Free Exhibition, California Palace of Fine Arts, 1918, 1921; 43rd, 45th-47th, 49th-51st, 53rd-55th & 57th Annual Exhibition (1919-1937). East-West Gallery of Fine Arts, January and May of 1928; Modern Gallery, 1928; Summer Annual Traveling Exhibition, CA Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1932; City of Paris Galleries, 1933; Adams-Danysh Galleries, 1934De Young Memorial Museum, 1935; Paul Elder's Gallery, 1935; Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1936.

Awards: San Francisco Art Association: 49th Annual, Honorable Mention, (1927); 50th Annual, Second Anne Bremer Prize, (1928); 57th Annual, First Anne Bremer Prize, (1937).

Abstract from California Art Research, WPA Project, vol. 19 & 20.
Hughes, Edan M. Artists In California 1786-1940. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Sacramento: Crocker, Art Museum, 2002. N. pag. 2 vols. Print.