Well known in both the professional sports and visual arts worlds, Ernest Eugene Barnes’s experience as an athlete was pivotal to his development as a painter of rhythm and movement. He has been celebrated as “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows.” In his own words, Barnes’s sports paintings and tavern scenes offer “a pictorial background for an understanding into the aesthetics of black America.” Though he is not recognized as a participant within the Black Movement of the 1960s, as some of his contemporaries have been, Barnes nonetheless overcame numerous obstacles to realize his artistic ambitions.
Born in Durham, North Carolina, during the Jim Crow years, Barnes did not have access to art museums. Instead, he familiarized himself with artistic movements in the personal library of his mother’s prominent employer. Bullied because of his weight as a youth, Barnes sought acceptance through athletics and relied on art as a means of personal expression. In 1956, Barnes enrolled at North Carolina Central University on a football scholarship and pursued a degree in art. Though he enjoyed a successful career in the National Football League from 1959 to 1966, Barnes never stopped painting.
Ed Wilson, sculpting professor at North Carolina Central University, taught Barnes to feel his movements while playing football and to then express that feeling in his work—a lesson Barnes never forgot. Barnes’s paintings, populated as they are with elongated figures reminiscent of Parmigianino’s or Michelangelo’s later work, have been described as Neo-Mannerist. Other scholars have pointed to his use of visual rhythm to sublimate physical tension as evidence of Black Romanticism. Barnes explained that he painted his expressive, gesturing figures with their eyes closed in reference to society’s preoccupation with skin color and general blindness to the inner essence of the individual. In homage to his Southern origins, Barnes finished his paintings with frames made of distressed wood inspired by the ramshackle fence that encircled his childhood home in Durham. It is an addition that Barnes believed his father, an uneducated shipping clerk who passed away before his son’s first solo exhibition, would have appreciated.
After retiring from his professional football career, Barnes became the official artist of the NFL and, later, the 1984 Olympics. He details his transition from professional athlete to artist in an autobiography, From Pads to Palette, published in 1995. Barnes’s tavern scenes are as celebrated as his sports paintings. Sugar Shack, circa 1970, was featured on the television show Good Times and, following some alterations, became the cover design for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album, I Want You. Barnes received numerous awards for his paintings, which continue to appear in exhibitions nationwide and are held in prominent private collections, as well as the California African American Museum. He died from a rare blood disorder in 2009. And, as he had requested, a portion of his ashes were spread over the site of his family’s home in Durham.