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Mongerson Gallery, Chicago September 19, 2015

Macena Barton (1901 - 1986) by Joel S. Dryer, Executive Director, Illinois Historical Art Project


“She is not subtle, but effective,” [1] “fresh and original” with “craftsmanship beyond dispute,”[2] were early, and life-long descriptions of Macena Barton; unique in that both conservative and modernist critics alike praised her work. It was predicted early in her career the young Chicago artist “was on the direct path to future recognition.”[3] Born August 7, 1901, in nearby Union City, Michigan Barton came to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute graduating in 1924. She noted her “outstanding teachers” were John Warner Norton (1876-1934), Wellington Jarard Reynolds (1866-1949)and Allen Erskine Philbrick (1879-1964).[4] She added to her studies an extra year of post-graduate atelier work coinciding with the school year when Leon Kroll (1884-1974) taught a special class at the school. Barton had noted Kroll was a significant influence on her and it is likely she postponed leaving the school in order to study with him. In a Life Magazine article entitled “Leon Kroll: He Is Dean of U. S. Nude-Painters,” Kroll’s focus on the subject is highly focused.[5] Barton would also explore the nude female form to an extensive degree in her career and his influence can be clearly seen in both her nude and clothed portraits.[6]


While earning her living as a copy proof-reader, she pursued her art.[7] The winter of 1926 her work was juried into the Art Institute’s Thirtieth Annual Exhibition By Artists of Chicago And Vicinity, with acceptance the following year at both the Chicago and Vicinity exhibition as well as the more venerable American Annual where she won the Peabody Prize for Sunday Morning. That she had entered the pantheon of accepted local artists became clear in 1929 when along with five other Chicagoans she was given space at the Art Institute to hang her works.[8] The show running from July 10th to October 11th included eleven of her paintings. These were decidedly low-brow affairs with typewritten exhibition sheets, small shared spaces, no opening night soiree and little exposure during the hot and quiet summer months, but were nonetheless important to the artist and supporters. Critic Eleanor Jewett announced the coming opening stating Barton was a “comparatively new and unknown painter,” who had “come into prominence lately because of her excellent work in figure painting”[9] and that she was an “active participant in the modernist movement” noting visitors should be armed with “intelligent curiosity” and “no prejudices.”[10] Within the span of a few months three of her works (two in the exhibit plus one other) were illustrated in The Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, doubtless through the efforts of her champion art critic Clarence J. Bulliet.[11]


In 1931 she won the Chicago Woman’s Aid prize for her work Marie Armengaud. The award was given only to women artists at the annual Chicago and Vicinity shows. She won the Chicago Woman’s Club Prize the following year featuring Frances Hildes, with a full-body halo.[12] The prize was worth two hundred dollars, a sizeable sum in the heart of the Great Depression. The use of a halo or aura was an artifice unique to the artist. The halo featured prominently in her portrait of critic Clarence J. Bulliet [collection of the Union League Club of Chicago], illustrated in what was the most important exhibition in her career, Half A Century of American Art, at the Art Institute in 1939.


By the 1940s Barton’s output was mature, broad and refined. At the Chicago Galleries Association one-woman exhibition she showed works that intrigue us still today; “a familiar self-portrait with bird nest” and several other interesting portraits and still-life works featuring lobsters, breads, and wine.[13]


It is not clear when she began to explore surrealist subject matter. In the Archives of American Art she made reference to “imaginary ‘fantastic’ views” in the photographs of her work. What is most likely is this artist, who had an incredible range, never formulaic, always interesting and pushing outward on some artistic boundaries, was exploring surrealism and “fantastic” subject matter by the time space was captivating the American public, likely the late 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s. Highly finished, with incredible craftsmanship, these hallmarks she held to throughout a career that spanned some sixty years. The artist died on May 30, 1986. She successfully managed to change with the times and within the era that surrounded her. Critic Bulliet posed and answered the question, “Do you understand now why both the ‘conservatives’ and the ‘moderns’ claim her? The ‘moderns’ sense her as an individualist, an egoist, going her unique way, untrammeled by the ‘schools.’ The ‘conservatives’ recognize her technical equipment and note her contempt for the ‘isms.’”[14] In 1932, almost 55 years before her death she stated, “One's work must necessarily be more or less an expression of the age in which he lives, also influenced somewhat by environment.”[15]

[1]Eleanor Jewett, “Betts Portraits on Display: Exhibits Varied Subjects,” Chicago Tribune, 4/27/1930, part 9, p.5.

[2]Eleanor Jewett, “Macena Barton Paints Bravely, View of Critic,” Chicago Tribune, 5/18/1931, p.21.

[3]Eleanor Jewett, “Work of Macena Barton on View: Young Artist Paints Life on a Generous Scale,” Chicago Tribune, 5/24/1931, part 8, p.3.

[4]J. Z. Jacobson, “Macena Barton,” Art of Today Chicago 1933, (Chicago: L. M. Stein, 1932).

[5]Life Magazine, 6/28/1948, pp.67-69.

[6]Barton frequently painted herself and her sister Rosanna [Opalenik] under various titles. See for example the exhibition record of the Art Institute of Chicago and Eleanor Jewett, “News of Interest to Lovers of Art,” Chicago Tribune, 7/29/1934, part 8, p.7.

[7]Eleanor Jewett, “Macena Barton, Local Artist, Is Invited to Show in Los Angeles,” Chicago Tribune, 3/28/1930, p.37. See also op. cit., Chicago Tribune, 5/24/1931, part 8, p.3.

[8]The others were Eda Sterchi, Claude Buck, William Schwartz, Gustaf Dalstrom and Frances Foy.

[9]“Institute Student Show Opens Tuesday: Dalstroms to be Represented,” Chicago Tribune, 6/9/1929, part 8, p.6.

[10] Eleanor Jewett, “Summer Institute shows Ready: Diversified One Man Shows,” Chicago Tribune, 7/14/1929, part 8, p.6.

[11]The works included: Othello, 7/16/1929, p.12 [not exhibited]; Self Portrait, 8/20/1929, p.5 [exhibited]; Lilies, 9/17/1929, p.2 [exhibited].

[12]Eleanor Jewett, “Work of Chicago Artists on Display,” Chicago Tribune, 2/1/1931, part 8, p.4. Thirty-Sixth Annual Exhibition By Artists Of Chicago And Vicinity, (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1/28/1932), image, not paginated, catalogue entry #17.

[13]Eleanor Jewett, “Alluring Works in Art Exhibit Opening Today,” Chicago Tribune, 3/8/1947, p.14, and “Macena Barton Strikes a High in Still Life Art,” 3/23/1947, part 7, p.2.

[14]C. J. Bulliet, “Artists of Chicago Past and Present: Macena Barton No. 12 in a Series Chicago Daily News, 5/11/1935, Art and Antiques section, p.1.

[15]Op. cit., “Macena Barton,” Art of Today Chicago 1933.

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