Scottish artist William Barr was a painter of landscapes, portraits and genre scenes. Over the course of his life, his style evolved to encompass new tonalist ideas, while also retaining his traditional British roots.
Born in Glasgow, he began his artistic education at the nearby Paisley School of Art and Design before progressing on to the Glasgow School of Art and the South Kensington School of Art in London. During the early part of his career, his works elicit a distinctly rustic Victorian quality. Such as observational genre scenes with figures undertaking everyday tasks and rugged landscapes with grazing cattle.
In one such work, we see an older man dressed in a waistcoat - resting by a small table and lighting a pipe. While another captures the buzz of a Punch & Judy show.
William Barr, Punch & Judy Show
At the turn of the century, artistic philosophies were emerging at an astonishing rate and artists like Barr had a decision to make. Whether to continue painting in a traditional style or adopt new avant-garde ideas. In 1904, Barr travelled to Paris and enrolled at one of the most renowned teaching environments in Europe, the Académie Julian.
Here, tuition was a formal affair with students urged to study engravings and ‘plasters’ while honing their draughtsmanship. The tutors were academics, primarily from a classical world where the old masters were celebrated, along with the Greek and Roman statues of antiquity. Before moving on to life drawing, students needed to demonstrate their keen understanding of static objects.
With his head down, Barr worked diligently, learning from, not only a talented array of Professors but also his fellow students. Artists from across Europe and America flocked to the Académie Julian with alumni including Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956). He likely trained alongside Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Fernand Léger (1881-1955), so the classes were certainly far from boring.
Away from the studio, Barr was immersed in the cafe culture of a vibrant city. Paris was at the heart of the artistic world. His outlook was irrevocably altered.
One emerging idea, in particular, resonated with Barr - tonalism. Another alumnus, American, John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), left the Académie with a passion for atmospheric landscapes composed of muted colours and a mist-like quality.
John Henry Twachtman, Springtime (c.1884)
Like the Impressionists, the Tonalists rapidly captured the fleeting effects of light, often at its most enigmatic.
In this work by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1904), we see a haunting Westminster Bridge in grey tones with flickers of gold shimmering in the Thames. It’s akin to a partially-recalled memory - a misty vision open to interpretation.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne In Grey & Gold, Westminster Bridge (c.1871-1874)
Upon returning to Glasgow, Barr’s landscapes shifted their emphasis towards light, tone and atmosphere.
His head fizzing with new ideas, he took up a post at the Paisley School of Art and Design and began inspiring the next generation of artists. His students had the benefit of a teacher fresh from Paris, undoubtedly equipped with numerous anecdotes.
Following the outbreak of World War I, he moved to San Francisco, where his looser style would’ve been well received. His works from this period blend his British foundations with a fondness for American tonalism. A misty array of Californian peaks atop a sound footing of Scottish tradition.
William Barr’s fascinating career speaks of an artist devoted to education. Continuously learning from the most-accomplished minds, while trying to capture nature in its various moods.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland.
Trained at the Paisley School of Art and Design.
Trained at the Glasgow School of Art.
Trained at South Kensington School of Art, London.
Enrolled at the Académie Julian, Paris.
Began teaching at the Paisley School of Art and Design.
Married Elisabeth Stevenson Smith.
Moved to California, USA.
Died in Glasgow, Scotland.