The Artistry of Ernie Barnes: A Look at His Iconic Paintings 

ernie barnes, ballroom soul oil on canvas Ernie Barnes - Ballroom Soul, Sold for $550,000 USD via Christie's (May 2022). 

The art of Ernie Barnes (1938 – 2009) is, at its core, an energetic depiction of Black American culture. His in-depth grasp of motion and human anatomy made him as much of a storyteller as he was an artist. 

Ernie Barnes’ paintings vividly capture the essence of life, evoking a strong sense of emotion through scenes drawn from his lived experiences. The subjects of his compositions — a blend of people from different races — promote a message of harmony that remains relevant to this day. It’s no wonder, then, that Ernie Barnes’ art remains pertinent to this day.

Ernie Barnes and his Legacy

Early Days

Ernie Barnes (full name Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr.) was born in Durham, North Carolina, on July 15, 1938. His father, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr., was a shipping clerk for a cigarette company. His mother,  Fannie Mae Geer, worked as a housekeeper for the Durham attorney Frank L. Fuller, Jr. Unusually, it was his mother’s profession that helped to spark Barnes’ early interest in the arts. 

On days when Barnes’ mom brought him to work, Fuller would allow him to read his collection of art books and listen to classical music. As a result, by the time he started elementary school, Barnes was already familiar with many important artists, such as Eugène Delacroix, Michaelangelo, and Peter Paul Rubens.

In high school, Barnes was, in his own words, “chubby and unathletic,” and experienced bullying. He often found peace in isolation away from his peers, in spaces where he could sketch. The school’s masonry teacher and weightlifting coach, Tommy Tucker, found him alone one day, and expressed interest in Barnes’ art. 

Tucker helped Barnes to develop a more positive perspective, and the encounter motivated Barnes to join his school’s football team. His determination and discipline elevated him to team captain and state champion by his senior year. 

Artist Becomes the Athlete (and Then Artist Again)

Ernie barnes, The Finish poster for 1984 Summer Olympics.

Ernie Barnes – The Finish, 1984 (Poster). Coming to auction in the RoGallery 4 November sale. Est: $800 USD – $1,000 USD.

Barnes ultimately graduated high school with a whopping 26 full athletic scholarship offers. While segregation limited his choices, he eventually attended the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham, now called North Carolina Central University, where he majored in art. 

In 1959, when Barnes was 22, the then-World Champions, Baltimore Colts drafted him to play professional football. During this time, he would continue his artistic pursuits during his time off, until his retirement from football in 1965. In retrospect, Barnes described ambivalence toward his time as a sportsman, the immersion in physical activity gave him a thorough understanding of the body’s response to movement. This insight not only influenced but invigorated the symbolic contortions of his subjects’ bodies in his future compositions.

In addition, the 1960s marked the height of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. The phrase “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” inspired by the 1968 James Brown song of the same name, gained prominence during this period. In response, Barnes contemplated the source of his pride, and explored his answer through his “Beauty in the Ghetto” exhibition. He took a powerful series of 35 paintings on tour around major American cities from 1972 to 1979, depicting Black America’s struggles and its joys. 

Ernie Barnes - High Aspirations, 1971.

Ernie Barnes – High Aspirations, 1971. Coming to auction in Bonhams‘ November 7 sale.

Barnes’ Unique Painting Style

For fans of Barnes, his work bears an unmistakable signature. His trademark use of vivid color and sweeping lines instills an electrifying intensity that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries. While Realism is evident in his style, he underscores and accentuates it with expressionistic brushstrokes, giving energy and rigor to stretched limbs and exaggerated movements. Barnes’ applied his energetic brushstrokes to give a greater depth of emotion to his depictions of Black American life.

Ernie Barnes’ unique painting style is often associated with the term ‘Neo-Mannerism.’ Neo-Mannerism represents a contemporary revival of the Mannerist artistic movement, which emerged in the late Renaissance period. Characterized by its emphasis on exaggerated forms, elongated proportions, and dramatic compositions, Mannerism sought to challenge traditional artistic norms. Barnes’ work, with its distinctive use of stretched anatomy and dynamic brushwork, echoes the spirit of Mannerism while infusing it with a modern, vibrant energy. His ability to capture the essence of life, particularly in depictions of Black American culture, contributes to the enduring legacy of Neo-Mannerism in the art world

The Barnes piece, Ballroom Soul exemplifies his style’s unique blend of motion, color, and elongated proportions that intermingle to create a lively scene of celebration. But, more than that, through Ballroom Soul, Barnes reinforces his desire to convey the Black American experience as more than hardship. The joy in the room, a room with only Black subjects, is apparent from the dancing couples and live instrumentalists.

Three Standout Ernie Barnes Paintings

Ernie Barnes’ legacy continues to endure in the art world thanks to his distinct style and the striking imagery he used to represent human experiences. Below are a few of his most lauded works, some of which have sold for high prices at auction. 

1. The Sugar Shack, 1976

Ernie barnes, sugar shack

Ernie Barnes – The Sugar Shack. Sold for $15,275,000 USD via Christie’s (May 2022).

Of all Ernie Barnes’ work, his painting ‘The Sugar Shack’ is likely his best-known and most acclaimed. The painting brings together every aspect of his art style, with vibrant colors, stretched anatomy, and dynamic brushwork giving energy to a lively scene. It depicts an all-Black crowd on the dance floor, lively dancers swaying to the music of a band playing passionately to the side. 

The Sugar Shack has been featured on the show Good Times and used as the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You. It has thus become a touchstone of Black American culture. The rich heritage that the scene symbolizes, and its significance in popular culture, has made it particularly valuable to art collectors. In May 2022, ‘The Sugar Shack’ sold for $15.2 million through the New York-based auction house Christie’s. This dollar figure was 76 times greater than the predicted sale price of $200,000.

2. Quintet, c.1989

ernie barnes, quintet

Ernie Barnes – Quintet. Sold for $525,000 USD via Heritage Auctions (May 2023).

Quintet is a quieter piece than Sugar Shack, focusing on five jazz musicians soulfully playing their instruments. Barnes’ grasp of motion captures the sway of each subject as they harmonize.  The pianist’s hand, raised mid-keystroke, creates tension as if the viewer is waiting for the next note to play. Additionally, each musician’s eyes are closed, a common trait in Ernie Barnes paintings. Here, it might represent the band’s focus on their music. However, Barnes more commonly used it to symbolize our blindness to the humanity of others.

3. The Disco, 1978

ernie barnes, quintet

Ernie Barnes – The Disco. Sold for $287,500 USD via Christie’s (October 2021).

The Disco painting depicts a setting similar to The Sugar Shack: a lively locale crowded with people possessing Barnes’ typical exaggerated physicality. A group dances in the upper portion of the scene, stretched limbs and swooping lines emphasizing their motions. Below the dance floor, several smaller interactions play out between other patrons within a common area. The crowd is a mix of Black and white people, a decision Barnes made to promote racial harmony.

Ernie Barnes’ Art at Auction Now

Finding Ernie Barnes’ artwork has become easier in recent years given its recent sales at auction. Barnes’ continued recognition from the art community has led to persistent interest among collectors in purchasing his works. If you’re interested in buying one of Barnes’ paintings for yourself, now is the time to do it. 

The Athlete Artist: Ernie Barnes’ Enduring Legacy

Ernie Barnes has left a lasting mark on the art world. His use of exaggerated figures to depict everyday scenes led to the coining of the term “Neo-Mannerism,” a rebirth of Mannerism in art. His depiction of the beauty found in Black American lives, though, may be the foundation of his endurance in the broader cultural landscape. Barnes’ art has become an essential part of Black heritage, and the positive messages behind his works grant them long-lasting appeal.