While Bo Bartlett’s paintings pay homage to an art historical tradition that has long been rooted in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, his work highlights the American South—a place he refers to as both the “center of the art world” and the “center of the real world.” After graduating from high school in Columbus, Georgia, Bartlett traveled to Florence, Italy, to pursue an artistic career. There, he studied under North Carolina painter Ben Long and focused on perfecting his drawing skills. A year later, in 1975, Bartlett continued his studies at Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) before transferring to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1976.
Bartlett began exhibiting his paintings in Philadelphia, New York, and Georgia in the early 1980s. At the same time, he studied privately with painter Nelson Shanks; took courses in anatomy at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine; and, in 1986, earned a certificate in filmmaking from New York University. In 1992, Bartlett moved to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he spent three years following, filming, and studying under painter Andrew Wyeth, whom he often refers to as his “artistic father.” Three years later, he released Snow Hill, a documentary based on Wyeth’s life and art.
Bartlett’s paintings—like Wyeth’s—are inspired by his surroundings and personal experiences. He frequently relies on relatives and friends as models and uses his dreams as inspiration for subject matter. Having grown up in a Southern Baptist family, Bartlett’s psychologically-charged pictures often allude to spiritual or biblical stories and themes. The resulting canvases are often mysterious and melancholic, denying the viewer a concrete interpretation. Despite their surreal quality, these images seem hauntingly familiar. Indeed, Bartlett’s work directly calls upon a wide variety of artists who were dedicated to observing and documenting a specifically American experience, including nineteenth-century American painters like George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer; twentieth-century realists Edward Hopper and Wyeth; and even the Saturday Evening Post covers created by Norman Rockwell. The imposing scale of Bartlett’s work—some of his largest paintings measure up to eighteen feet in length—reminds viewers of grand history paintings by European masters such as Titian, Eugène Delacroix, and Diego Velázquez, all of whom Bartlett notes as influential to his work.
Lauded as a leader in American figurative painting, Bartlett has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. The subject of many solo exhibitions, his work is held in numerous public and private collections, including Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Hunter Museum of American Art, among others. The Bo Bartlett Center, a gallery space and art education center founded by the artist in his hometown, is housed on the campus of Columbus State University.