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 vigor. He has been celebrated as “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows.” In his own words, Barnes’s work offers “a pictorial background for an understanding into the aesthetics of black America.” 

Born in Durham, North Carolina, during the Jim Crow years, Barnes did not have access to art museums. Instead, he familiarized himself with art history 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 an emotional outlet. In 1956, Barnes enrolled at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) on a full athletic scholarship and pursued a degree in art.

One influential college instructor urged Barnes to translate the physical movement of his body on the football field to the canvas—a lesson Barnes never forgot. His sports and tavern paintings, populated with expressive, elongated figures reminiscent of Parmigianino or Michelangelo’s later work, have been described as Neo-Mannerist. These figures are most often depicted with their eyes closed, a practice Barnes adopted to illustrate “how blind we are to one another's humanity” and the tendency to “stop at color.” He preferred to present his paintings in frames made of distressed wood inspired by the ramshackle fence that had encircled his childhood home in Durham. 

After playing in the National Football League from 1960 to 1965, Barnes devoted himself to art, becoming the official artist of the NFL and, later, of the 1984 Olympics. He detailed his transition from professional athlete to artist in a 1995 autobiography, From Pads to Palette. His best-known work, Sugar Shack (circa 1970), was featured on the popular television show Good Times and, following some alterations, became the cover design for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 I Want You album.

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.