Acclaimed as the "Titan of American sculptors" and the "Michelangelo of his time," George Grey Barnard carved for himself not only an international reputation as an artist but also as one of the most ardent collectors and private dealers of Medieval art and architecture, contributing greatly to American appreciation of Romanesque and Gothic art.
Born in 1863 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Barnard was son to a Presbyterian minister, Joseph H. Barnard, and his wife Martha Grubb. He had a brother, Evan, as well as two sisters, May and Barbara, who also went by the nickname "Toots." Barnard's family moved west in 1866, living in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Kankakee, Illinois and Muscatine, Iowa. During this time, Barnard worked as a self-trained taxidermist and jeweler's engraver. In 1882 he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where according to the art historian Harold E. Dickson, his studies of casts of works by Michelangelo convinced the young Barnard to make the Renaissance master his "lifetime ideal." With the money he earned from his portrait bust of a child, Barnard went to Paris in 1884 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After three years of toiling long hours in the studio and living nearly destitute, Barnard met his first major patron in 1886, Alfred Corning Clark, heir of the Singer Manufacturing Company. Clark's fist commissions included the marble figure "The Boy," and a memorial to Clark's friend, the singer Lorentz Severin Skougaard, entitled "Brotherly Love." Clark also commissioned "Two Natures," an allegorical work inspired by a line from Victor Hugo regarding the internal struggle of man's two natures. Exhibited at the 1894 Salon of the Champs de Mars, the piece, which now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, won critical acclaim for Barnard, including the praise of Auguste Rodin who served on the exhibition jury. While in Europe during this period, Barnard also met his future wife, Edna Monroe of Boston. They married in 1895 and returned to the United States, settling in New York's Washington Heights. They would have three children, Vivia, Monroe and Barbara. During the early years of marriage, Barnard continued to produce major works in bronze, marble as well as oak, including "The Hewer," "Maiden with Roses," and "Norwegian Clock." At the turn of the century, he taught briefly at the Art Students League of New York as a Professor of Sculpture. More accolades came Barnard's way, including gold medals at expositions held in Paris (1900) and in Buffalo (1901).
Despite these successes, Barnard suffered setbacks as well, particularly financially after the death of his friend and patron Clark in 1896. Then in 1902 Barnard received a major commission--the largest dollar amount awarded an American artist--to produce the sculpture for the Pennsylvania Capitol at Harrisburg. For this project, Barnard moved his family the following year to Moret-sur-Loring near Fontainbleau, France, and worked there until its completion in 1910. During this period, Barnard once again found himself in financial straits as the State of Pennsylvania was experiencing its own budget crisis, and cut Barnard's funding by more than half, and then all together. Private financing allowed Barnard to complete the project's two monumental figural groups, "Love and Labor" and "The Burden of Life." Like "Two Natures," his Harrisburg project was exhibited at the Salon (1910) and highly praised. Upon the work's final placement at the Capitol, an opening ceremony was held October 4, 1911, designated "Barnard Day" by the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Not all of Barnard's creations were as well received. Originally intended for placement in New York City's Central Park, Barnard's 1895 sculpture of the god Pan was rejected because of the controversy created over the image's nudity. The reclining half-man, half-goat figure was later presented to Columbia University. Barnard's interpretation of a young Abraham Lincoln created an even greater stir. Commissioned by Charles Taft for the City of Cincinnati, Barnard sought to create a "Lincoln for the people." When it was announced that a replica of Barnard's 11-foot bronze, dedicated in 1917, was to go to Westminster Abby to commemorate 100 years of peace between America and Great Britain, harsh reactions ensued. Barnard's "Lincoln" was denounced as "slouchy and ungainly" and reportedly criticized by the late President's son, Robert Todd. Despite the replica's ultimate placement in the factory town of Manchester, Barnard was not deterred and continued to sculpt a series of heads of Lincoln, including a 15-foot version.
While Barnard's work was often described as visionary, the same can be said of his other passion--the collecting and exhibiting of Medieval sculpture within an architecturally suitable surrounding. His efforts generated public interest in art of that period and influenced later museum installations. As with his art, Barnard's collecting was inextricably linked with his finances.
Before private funding became available to complete the Harrisburg project, Barnard, while still in France, needed other means to provide for his family. In 1905 he began buying carved medieval figures and architectural elements he discovered in the French countryside. While the accounts of Barnard pedaling his bicycle to remote farms and other village sites to acquire his pieces are now legendary, his efforts at the time brought disappointment when an assumed purchase by the Metropolitan Museum of Art did not materialize. In the end, however, this failed transaction resulted in another opportunity. Having decided to keep and continue to buy pieces for his own collection, which expanded after another buying trip in 1913, Barnard shipped his acquisitions to the States that year with the intent of exhibiting them in a brick building he designed specifically for that purpose in Washington Heights. Barnard opened his building to the public in December 1914, charging admission. Proceeds would go to families in France now destitute from the outbreak of war. Barnard's distress over the First World War so overwhelmed him that the declaration of Armistice in 1918 inspired him to develop a project that would serve as a war memorial and monument to peace. In Barnard's vision, this sprawling complex of architecture and sculpture would be erected on the northern point of Manhattan and serve as an "art acropolis." While his acropolis vision would be scaled down to a monumental sculptural program known as the "Rainbow Arch," Barnard remained committed to the project until the day he died.
To help finance his new vision, Barnard sold his medieval collection in 1925 to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was also a patron of Barnard, having at his Pocantico Hills (NY) estate, "The Hewer," "Rising Woman" and "Adam and Eve." Rockefeller presented his purchase to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection continued to be exhibited in Barnard's brick building for the next ten years while Rockefeller financed the construction of an edifice to house permanently the more than 600 pieces. The collective project became "The Cloisters," situated in Fort Tryon Park of Washington Heights--the same area Barnard had hoped to use for his art acropolis.
After the Cloisters sale, Barnard returned to Europe in the summers of 1925 and 1927, to acquire a second collection, which he named "The Abbaye." In the course of the latter excursion, Barnard found it necessary to mix business with politics, using his reputation as a buyer of French artifacts to ameliorate international cultural relations. Responding to the Senate's accusations of France's history being bought up and shipped away by American millionaires, Barnard explained his actions as a way of rescuing treasures long ignored and neglected. Because of the impact of his comments, Barnard's French colleagues made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor the following year. Back in the states, Barnard sold some of his new acquisition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but he kept most of it to fill the void created when the elements of the Cloisters were relocated in 1936. He reopened his Abbaye in the fall of 1937. By that time, he was storing his model for the "Rainbow Arch" in a vacant railway powerhouse, having been forced to abandon his studio after the City's designation of the area for the Fort Tyron Park. He exhibited the 100' x 60' model in the spring of 1935, his first exhibition in 20 years. Although it drew crowds, Barnard's largest project did not generate the necessary funding.
While working on a larger-than-life-size statue of Abel, Barnard suffered two heart attacks in one day. He died two weeks later on April 24, 1938--three weeks before the opening of the Cloisters. Barnard's funeral was held at the Abbaye, and the burial was in Harrisburg. Except for a three-month reopening in May 1940, the Abbaye remained closed, and in 1945 the Philadelphia Museum of Art bought most of its pieces. The model of "Rainbow Arch" was dismantled, and few plaster fragments remain.