William S. Barrett's Sea and Shore



The following essay was written in 1978 by John Douglas Ingraham and included in the catalogue for the William S. Barrett retrospective exhibition "William S. Barrett (1854-1927): Paintings of the Sea and Shore" held at The Schenectady Museum, Schenectady, New York, November 25, 1978 - February 4, 1979


Schooners ploughing their way home through coastal storms; tides lolling along the coasts of Maine or New Jersey; lobstermen investigating their traps; luminous mists rising from jagged rocks along Monhegan Island as stars gaze through a midnight sky; moon-drenched shorelines; harbored yawls in quiet inlets; waves slapping their imprints upon a shore - these are some of the moments William S. Barrett captured intimately on paper and canvas. These portraits of the sea and shore allow the viewer to identify with, and more fully comprehend, the forces of nature and its mysteries as interpreted through the eyes of a master marine impressionist.

Many critics have analyzed and praised the works of William S. Barrett. In 1903 the New York Herald noted that "there is more than pleasing strength and vitality in W. S. Barrett's marines," while in 1905 the New York Times said Barrett was a painter "of remarkable energy. He not only paints with unusual strength and spirit, but with great rapidity, a fact wherein lies, no doubt, the secret of much of his virility." More recent critics have taken a serious look at the painting techniques and concepts of this artist. During the 1972 Barrett show in El Paso, Texas, Leonard P. Sipiora, director of the museum, stated that, "William S. Barrett, like Turner, captured with ease the mystery of the sea and sky," while art historian Richard H. Love of Chicago remarked in 1975, "Barrett combines Whistler and Turner with himself in paint. This is a fine achievement made by a superior marine impressionist. Yet, he is truly American in feeling and execution." Art historian Patricia Jobe Pierce wrote in American Antiques in 1978 that, "William S. Barrett tells an authentic and unique story-in-paint about the sea ....The sea was Barrett's mistress and he knew her well ....She was his challenge and his inspiration and as his curiosity and knowledge of her broadened, the sureness, breadth and authority of his paintings developed....Knowing that no man can totally possess the sea, Barrett humbled himself to truthfully and competently conquer her on canvas." Examining Barrett's watercolors, The Boothbay Register said, "Each painting reveals a sensitive man with a sure reason behind every stroke", while in 1971 Antique News stated that "his canvases are individually well done, and show a talented man' s impression of the sea, which he understood intimately and showed with great vigor and sureness. " In that same year, Antique Monthly confidently wrote, "No collection is complete without an example of his work." (left above: Fishing Boat off the Coast of Maine)

William S. Barrett was born in Rockport, Maine on May 1, 1854. He was the eldest of ten children born to Julia Tolman and Amos Barrett. Records show that the Barrett family had been prominent for several generations in the Rockport area, and that from the age of ten William Barrett worked helping his father build small sailing vessels in Rockport. By the age of sixteen, Barrett was an avid sailor and an inspired artist who often painted or sketched during rain or thunder storms in any small vessel he could sneak away from his father's shipyard. Up through 1875, his youthful sketches show a deep understanding of the sea, and an early realization of what an artist had to do to blend colors into one another in order to achieve a realistic atmospheric effect.

Throughout Barrett's painting career he worked on location and refused to become what he considered to be a studio painter. Because he both designed sailing craft and sailed in them, and having lived along the shores of Maine until he was twenty-six, his paintings have added authority of truthful observation which many marine painters never seem to fully grasp. Being a sailor, but wanting to paint (instead of design), Barrett's quest for knowledge of the sea continued to grow throughout his lifetime. He was an investigator; a researcher. He wanted his pastels, charcoal drawings, watercolors and his oils to represent nature authentically and each of his efforts seem to reveal a new part of his total view.

Barrett moved to New York City in 1882, where he designed ships for the A. Cary Smith ship building company while attending private art lessons during evening hours. In 1883 he traveled to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian under Boulanger and Lefebvre, and was highly influenced by the works of Turner, Constable, Whistler and Bouguereau. By analyzing the various techniques of these masters, Barrett was able to incorporate some of their painting methods into his own unique style of painting. After 1885 he returned to the United States where he studied privately with William Merritt Chase in 1890. it was Chase who convinced Barrett to continuously attempt new artistic developments. After 1890, Barrett applied layers of translucent color to each canvas, and by doing so achieved a "see through" quality in his painted water. His blacks would now appear blue-black and his whites would become almost beige, gray, blue or golden in tonality. His evening views often take on a Whistleresque color-scheme and vigor. Barrett expressed realism with an impressionist's brush, as his rapidly executed strokes created impressions of the sea and shore. Within his finessed handling of watercolors, one can see up to five layers of opaque paint washed into one another. This technique brought a critic of the Greenwich Times to exclaim that, "His watercolors and pastels are gems, revealing complete mastery of his medium."

Barrett moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1885 where he remained until 1920. In Brooklyn he shared a studio loft with Harry Roseland, Gustave Wiegand, George McCord and Paul Dougherty (who was one of Barrett's students.). Painting and teaching marine impressionism, Barrett made certain his students thoroughly understood their subject matter. If they wanted to paint the sea then they would have to go to her and analyze her every mood and movement. Keeping a summer resort in Rockport, Barrett took his students and fellow artists to that seaport to further study waves, tides, and the atmospheric interplay between the sky, sea and shore. Barrett was not a frivolous or sloppy technician. In one of his sketchbooks he wrote, "The seaweed rarely grows to the white shells but leaves a space of a few inches of the rich colored rocks sparsely covered with shells. Water over seaweed takes on a purplish color. The bottom is light emerald green." In a newspaper interview Barrett explained, "The most important element in art, as in life, I hold to be the truth. An artist has to be a close observer in order not to make mistakes .... Note the color of this breaking wave .... Nine people out of ten would criticize the brownish yellow tint of the water as it breaks into foam, asserting it should be green. The next opportunity you have, observe casually the breakers along the sandy shore. You will find that, as the waves rush in, they scoop up the yellow sand, and, as they surge back and break, foam and water alike take on the hue of sand." In another notebook he wrote, "When a wave breaks, a slight mist creates a gray-white veil above the crest. It is remarkable to me that man is allowed to observe such splendor. It is awesome and bewildering at times." Other notebooks talk of skies, storms, and the aftermath of an angry sea.

In 1901/02 ten artists organized a group called "The Brooklyn Ten." The painters represented were W. S. Barrett, Frederick and Joseph Boston, Charles Burlingame, Paul Dougherty, Benjamin Eggleston, George McCord, Edward Rorke, Harry Roseland and Gustave Wiegand. "The Brooklyn Ten" became known as "The Society of Brooklyn Painters" in 1903, and their first annual exhibition was held at the Hooper Gallery at 593 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Barrett exhibited powerful paintings of crashing waves, of peaceful shorelines, and of dramatic waters along the Maine coastline. In 1902/03 Barrett, McCord and George Mulford Carpenter founded "The Brooklyn New School of Art" where students "would be taught in a practical way by artists of established reputations." A 1902 news account tells us that the school "is especially designed for the practical training and advancement of those students who either have already (or intend to make) one or another of the various phases of art their life work or profession .... With this end in view, instructors who have made art their profession to those whose profession is teaching, have been assigned to the different classes." Barrett taught marine painting at the New School while he privately taught in Brooklyn and in Rockport, Maine. (left: Photograph of William S. Barrett, c. 1924)

William S. Barrett took the professions of teaching and painting seriously. Throughout his painting career he sought total authenticity in both of these endeavors. Not wanting to become a commercially oriented artist who painted for the sake of money or praise, Barrett shunned publicity and rejected offers to become a member of many art groups. His intentions were to paint, to learn more about painting techniques, and to continue to broaden his insights about the ocean. Unlike Winslow Homer, Barrett was not an illustrator. His sole purpose was to attempt to honestly record nature's moments. Because of his early success as a ship designer and builder, he was not forced to sell his art or to paint pictures to decorate parlor walls. He was, in actuality, a wealthy man. Perhaps these facts account for Barrett's refined and well handled touches of paint, for his subtle and remarkably sensitive use of color, for his almost perfected designs, and for his overall high painting quality. He did not have to hurry his work (although he painted rapidly), nor did he have to paint a canvas in order to please a patron. Because of these facts his artistic output was creative and sincere.

In 1927, Barrett told his family to destroy all of his paintings upon his death. Although this request horrified his friends and relatives, Barrett felt true-to-his-art when he made this request. He had painted his canvases because they pleased him; because he could bring the sea into his home; and because each painting recorded a meaningful moment or event which he had appreciated. He did not want people to fight over his work, nor did he want the public to abuse it in any way after his death. His portraits of the land and sea were precious to him. For them to be marred or misunderstood was not satisfactory to the painter. Only upon occasion had Barrett sold his art work. He did, however, give paintings to people who seemed to understand what he tried to capture on canvas. Presenting the ocean with dignity, strength and vigor, William S. Barrett sailed through many seas sketching on his yawl, The Whim, with A. T. Bricher, George McCord, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Paul Dougherty, and other noted painters. It is fortunate that Barrett's request was not fulfilled at his death. If it had been, the art world would not be able to salute this remarkably fine American marine painter's impressionism. Although Barrett became a quiet recluse who was compelled to paint, study, sail upon and live near the sea until his death August 19, 1927, his art works show us that the man was powerfully talented and boldly expressive.

The Schenectady Museum's retrospective exhibition of William S. Barrett's paintings applauds the artistic achievements of this painter, while at the same time it recognizes that he presents nature honestly, competently and uniquely. This exhibition gathers together and displays the total development, growth and breadth of this painter and it allows the viewer to witness the artist's diversity of concept and technique. The Camden Herald wrote in 1970, "Barrett, acclaimed in his time, is only now coming to take his important place among American impressionist painters of the sea." Ellerton M. Jette said in 1971, "The rediscovery of the impressionist painter, William S. Barrett, may well show him to be one of the greatest marine painters ever to come from the state of Maine." The Schenectady Museum's Barrett retrospective exhibition triumphantly reveals this to be true.


About the author

John Douglas Ingraham was assistant director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. from 1978-1983.

Mr. Ingraham's essay is courtesy of Pierce Galleries, Inc., a fine arts services company based in Hingham, Massachusetts.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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