No. 12 Macena Barton

 

Macena Barton has the odd distinction of being claimed by both the “conservative” and “modern” camps of Chicago artists. The ultra-sedate Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors recently elected her to membership while, as a member of the bitterly rival Chicago Society of Artists, she was preparing to participate with them in a New York exhibition. She has been equally at home in the official shows at the Art institute and in the rebel No-Jury shows. She has had “one-man” exhibitions in some of the most substantial of Chicago’s commercial galleries while joining simultaneously in exhibitions of “revolt” stages in the “little galleries.”

 

This distinction arises out of the fact that Macena Barton, while a strong individualist thoroughly aware of what is transpiring the world over in art, has never been led astray by the “isms.” For five years in the school of the Art institute of Chicago (1921-1926), one of them as a postgraduate, she applied herself diligently to the “craft” of the painter. But she didn’t allow her imagination and her emotions to congeal. Born a rebel and with an avid thirst for learning, she absorbed greedily the instruction of Wellington Reynolds, John Norton, Allen Philbrick, and Leon Kroll, but refused to follow in the footsteps of any of them, even the strong and spectacular Kroll. When Kroll’s students all became “little Krolls” — the Goya-Manet-Henri-Bellows-Kroll tradition — youthful, rebellious Macena Barton went her own sublimely indifferent way.

 

Kroll, complimenting highly a nude she had done in class from a model (“the best he had seen since he had been in Chicago”) predicted for her a great future, quite eclipsing his own. He took occasion further to inform the class “there is no sex in art,” using Mary Cassatt as a text, alleging that a woman, when she can paint, is as capable as a man.

Macena Barton treasured all this, and when she read in a book, “The Courtezan Olympia,” a few years later that a woman is quite incapable of painting a great nude, it made her mad. She got hold of a stunning Negress model and proceeded to paint for the No-Jury show of 1931 a picture, “Mitzi,” that proved the sensation of the year. It swept the author of “The Courtezan Olympia” quite off his feet and prepared the way for an exhibition of her paintings two months later at the Knoedler Galleries, Chicago. “Mitzi” then toured America, with an exhibition sent out by the Art Institute.

 

Two years previous to this, however, in the summer of 1929, her alma mater had given her a “one-man” show that brought her into national prominence. >From this show, a smart, ultra-swanky self-portrait was invited for exhibition in the Los Angeles Museum, along with pictures by “a limited number of artists from the east, whose work is outstanding.”

 

But a still greater honor was accorded her — an invitation to go abroad and exhibit from “twenty-two to thirty” of her paintings in the Modern Museum at Amsterdam, Holland, to be followed by shows at The Hague and Rotterdam. The Amsterdam Museum offered to set aside for her a whole gallery, 25 by 50 feet, between two galleries, the one occupied by Israels and the others by Liebermann, a distinction, the director explained, rarely accorded a foreigner, who generally were exhibited only in groups. A professor of Amsterdam University obtained for her the invitation through showing photographs of her paintings to the museum director. The professor, traveling in America that summer, had been so struck with her show at the Institute that he visited the gallery again and again.

 

The invitation had to be declined, most regretfully, owing to costs of transportation and insurance, to the artist prohibitive.

 

For Macena Barton, though born with pastel chalk in her hand, was without a silver spoon in her mouth. She came into the world in Union City, Mich., Aug 7, 1901. After growing up from 5 through the schools at Battle Creek, she came to Chicago and went to work as a clerk in the Continental Commercial Bank. It was there, occupied with figures she thoroughly detested, that she earned the money to enter the school of the Art Institute. It was as a bank clerk and later as a proofreader in a big printing establishment (her mother being a printer) that Macena Barton helped materially to make her way through art school and to support herself the next few years as a painter. She read proof through the night, slept through the morning, and painted afternoons.

 

It was in these strenuous circumstances that she got ready, 1925 to 1929, for the Art Institute show that definitely established her as a painter. Celebrities of the opera sat for her and their portraits constituted a notable group in her show. From the days of her tutelage under Kroll, she had been fascinated by the nude, and a “Salome” of hers in her Institute show was bought by Vincent Bendix. It is a painting still of rare distinction in a “period” of Macena Barton’s that is past — a “period” that also brought forth the smart self-portrait Los Angeles was to invite. With “Mitzi,” Macena Barton closed the door on “Salome.”

 

“Salome” was an outgrowth of Miss Barton’s intense admiration of the “primitives” in the Art Institute collection. Before the advent of Kroll, if the girl was found to be missing from her class duties, it was safe to look for her among the “primitives” She admired their color to the point of obsession.

 

Born a barbarian (and never, even yet, having grown out of it), gaudy colors quicken Macena Barton’s pulses. When she paints even a nude, the model must wear flamboyant rings in her ears and flaming red or flashing green combs in her hair, with usually a many-jeweled pendant at her neck and between her breasts. If you’ve ever paused in the “primitive” rooms of the Institute, you’re aware of the regal feast spread before this eager girl student.

 

In those days not so long ago in years, but ages away apparently in enlightenment, certain of the instructors in the school at the Art Institute were intensely annoyed at the growing tendency of the museum’s galleries to “go modern.” Cezanne and Matisse made their timid advent, and then came the Birch-Bartlett collection like a bolt of thunder and a flash of lightning. The instructors warned their pupils to keep away from the “moderns” until they had been so grounded in “sound craftsmanship” that they could “take it.”

 

It was then that Leon Kroll, friend and disciple of Bellows and Henri, came to the Chicago school as visiting instructor. He not only accorded his students permission to visit the Birch-Bartlett collection and the scattered kindred paintings, including the magnificent Ryerson Cezanne, but urged and commanded them to do so. Kroll gave Macena Barton new eyes — eyes to see the subtleties of Cezanne’s coloring, the glorious flesh tones of Renoir.

 

Macena Barton’s career as a painter of the nude — she is without successful rival, I believe, in contemporary America — has been a synthesis of what Renoir found in “a skin that can take the light” and the “primitives’” appreciation of barbaric and gaudy ornament.


Color, with Macena Barton, is not something to be smeared over a picture to make it bright. Color, with her, is the essence of the picture — it is in its color that the picture has vitality, throbs. Her colors are vivid — a show of hers is like a flash from a tropical flower garden in full bloom. But search as you will, you’ll not find a milligram of color in all her pictures applied for the sake of “coloring” — like you color an Easter egg, or like the child pictures in its first reader. You never feel it applied to the cheeks or the lips or the nipples or even the nails of her nudes, like rouge. The color in her pictures is as organic as the green in a leaf or the yellow in a lily petal. Without its color, the leaf and the lily petal would wilt; Macena Barton’s nudes would languish.

 

In portraiture, too, Miss Barton has won first distinction. She has here, too, a “philosophy” that is sound and vital. She believes with all the strength of her ego (which she admits to be pretty muscular) that a portrait must be, first, a “likeness.” Second, it must be “interesting” — it must be a picture, so good in its balance of elements, so excellent in its craftsmanship as to make its way, whether you know the sitter or not.

 

Macena Barton, besides having her clean-cut beliefs in relation to her art, has technical ability, through long training, to accomplish what she sets out to do.

 

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.”

 

Of English-Protestant-Republican extraction, Miss Barton at one time in her middle 20’s became, almost simultaneously and with no oppressive feeling of discrepancy, an ardent disciple of Marx, Nietzsche, and the Roman Church fathers. But like a baseball player who starts to the plate swinging three bats, she ultimately discarded Communism and Catholicism, and faced the pitcher with the aristocratic and autocratic Nietzsche.

 

Personally, Macena Barton isn’t overly popular. She’s blunt and outspoken. She tears down the curtains of shams — she’s as “primitive” and “barbaric” in her emotions as in her color lusts.

 

“I detest artists,” she is apt to exclaim in a moment of wrath over knee-bending stupidities, “but I adore art.”

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