Alfred H. Barr Jr.

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Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr. (January 28, 1902 – August 15, 1981) was an American art historian and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. From that position, he was one of the most influential forces in the development of popular attitudes toward modern art; for example, his arranging of the blockbuster Van Gogh exhibition of 1935, in the words of author Bernice Kert, was "a precursor to the hold Van Gogh has to this day on the contemporary imagination."[1]

Life and education


Barr's life and work are the subject of Hugh Eakins's 2022 book about efforts by Barr and others to bring Picasso's work, already celebrated in Europe, to the United States. Barr graduated from the Boys' Latin School of Maryland. Barr received his B.A. in 1923 and his M.A. in 1924 from Princeton University, where he studied art history with Frank Jewett Mather and Charles Rufus Morey. In 1924, he began doctoral work at Harvard, but left after completing PhD course requirements to pursue teaching. He was not awarded his PhD until 1946.[2] He married the art historian Margaret Scolari on May 8, 1930, in Paris.[3] They had one daughter, Victoria Barr, who is a painter.[4]



Barr was hired as an associate professor to teach art history at Wellesley College in 1926, where in the same year he offered the first-ever undergraduate course on modern art, "Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting." This course was notable not only for the novelty of its subject-matter but also for its unconventional pedagogy: Barr referred to all nine students in the class as "faculty", making them each responsible for mastering and teaching some of the course content. Although, per its title, the course ostensibly focused on painting, Barr thought a broad understanding of culture was necessary to understand any individual artistic discipline, and accordingly, the class also studied design, architecture, film, sculpture, and photography. There was no required reading aside from Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New Masses, and the numerous class trips were not to typical locations of art-historical interest. For example, on a trip to Cambridge, the class passed over the wealth of Harvard's museums to experience the "exquisite structural virtuosity", in Barr's words, of the Necco candy factory.[5]

In 1929, Barr was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship, which he intended to use to complete the requirements for his PhD by writing a dissertation during the following academic year on modern art and Cubism at New York University.[2] But greater ambitions obliged him to shelve that intention when Anson Conger Goodyear, acting on the recommendation of Paul J. Sachs, offered Barr the directorship of the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. Assuming the post in August 1929 aged only twenty-seven, Barr's achievements in it accumulated quickly; the Museum held its first loan exhibition in November, on the Post-Impressionists Vincent Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat. Perhaps Barr's most memorable and enduring accomplishment in his directorial capacity was the Picasso retrospective of 1939–1940, which caused a reinterpretation of the artist's work and established the model for all future retrospectives at the Museum. When Barr put Picasso's "Demoiselles" on display in New York in 1939, and declared it 'the beginning of a new period in the history of art',[6] he was also shaping the formalist approach to art. As a formalist he advocated for technical radicalism and the potential of art's formal aspect.[7]

In 1930, Barr married Margaret Scolari, whom he met at the inaugural exhibition of MoMA in 1929.[8]

According to Sybil Gordon Kantor in her book Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Crowninshield art critic, journalist and editor of Vanity Fair, was one of Barr's mentors and one of the founding trustee members of the Museum of Modern Art along with several others.[9]

In 1937 Barr showed Leo Frobenius's collection of drawings and paintings showcasing prehistorical African engravings and stone paintings to great success.[10]

In 1941, in collaboration with his wife and Varian Fry, he helped many artists escape from France, occupied by the Nazis, one of them being Marc Chagall.[11][12] Barr helped secure American visas as well as the sponsorship of 3000 dollars requested to get the visa.[13] Barr also helped the art dealers Curt Valentin and Otto Kallir to gain entry into America.[14][15] Both supplied the MoMa with modern works of art.[16] Some of these were subsequently the object of claims for restitutions from the heirs of Jewish collectors that had been looted by the Nazis.[17]

In 1943, Museum of Modern Art president Stephen Carlton Clark dismissed Barr as director of the Museum, though he was allowed to stay on as an advisory director (working with his successor Rene d'Harnoncourt); later Barr was given the title Director of Collections. By the time Barr left MoMA in 1968, modern art would be considered as legitimate an art-historical field of study as earlier eras such as the Renaissance. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1952.[18]

In recognition of Barr's legacy as an art historian and first director of MoMA, the College Art Association established the Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for museum scholarship in 1980. The award is given annually to the author of an outstanding catalogue produced through a museum, library, or public or private collection.[19]

Selected works



  • Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art (1946)
  • Matisse, His Art and His Public (1951)
  • Cubism and Abstract Art Cambridge: Belknap Press (1986). ISBN 0-674-17935-8
  • Art in America in Modern Times (1934)
  • Vincent van Gogh, with an introduction and notes selected from the letters of the artist (1935)


  • "Chronicles." Painting and Sculpture in The Museum of Modern Art 1929–1967. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977, 619–650.


  1. ^ Kert, Bernice. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family. New York: Random House, 1993. 376.
  2. ^ a b Alexander, Ralph. "MoMA as Educator: The Legacy of Alfred H. Barr Jr." Review of Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art by Sybil Gordon Kantor. The Journal of Aesthetic Education 39.2 (2005): 97–103.
  3. ^ Kantor, Sybil Gordon (2002). Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 14. ISBN 9780262112581.
  4. ^ "Barr, Margaret Scolari (1901–1987) |". Retrieved May 22, 2020.
  5. ^ Meyer, Richard. "What Was Contemporary Art?" Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. February 21, 2007.
  6. ^ Alfred Barr, Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art, New York Museum of Modern Art, 1946, reprinted 1974
  7. ^ Hatt, M. & Klonk, C. (2020) Art History: a critical introduction to its methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press
  8. ^ Brenson, Michael (December 31, 1987). "Margaret Scolari Barr, a Teacher And Art Historian, Is Dead at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  9. ^ Kantor, Sybil. Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Marc Chagall Biography, Life & Quotes". The Art Story. Retrieved November 4, 2019.
  12. ^ "New York exhibit explores Chagall's art during war years, exile". Reuters. October 8, 2013. Retrieved November 4, 2019.
  13. ^ Gabriel, Mary (2018). Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan ...
  14. ^ Goldfarb., Marquis, Alice (1989). Alfred H. Barr, Jr : missionary for the modern. Contemporary Books. OCLC 605056668.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ "Fighting Corruption of the Historical Record:Nazi-Looted Art Litigation" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on August 6, 2017. Alfred Barr, MoMA Chairman, helped sponsor Kallir's immigration.
  16. ^ Petropoulos, Jonathan (May 24, 2011). "Bridges from the Reich: The Importance of Émigré Art Dealers as Reflected in the Case Studies of Curt Valentin and Otto Kallir-Nirenstein". Kunstgeschichte (in German).
  17. ^ Cohan, William D. (November 17, 2011). "MoMA's Problematic Provenances". Archived from the original on December 8, 2019. Retrieved March 20, 2021. Barr knew all about Valentin's relationship with Buchholz and the Nazi regime, and he wanted to use Valentin as a conduit for the purchase of art seized by the Nazis, as their correspondence makes clear.
  18. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  19. ^ "Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award". College Art Association. Retrieved October 22, 2013.

Further reading

  • Barr, Margaret Scolari. "Our Campaigns: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Museum of Modern Art: A Biographical Chronicle of the Years 1930–1944." The New Criterion, special summer issue, 1987, pp. 23–74.
  • Eakin, Hugh. Picasso's War: How Modern Art Came to America. New York: Crown. 2022.
  • Kantor, Sybil Gordon. Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art
  • Fitzgerald, Michael C. Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-Century Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
  • Lynes, Russell, Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art, New York: Athenaeum, 1973.
  • Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Alfred H. Barr Jr: Missionary for the Modern. New York: Contemporary Books, 1989. (Marquis also wrote a novel about Barr, "Brushstroke!")
  • MacDonald, Dwight (December 12, 1953). "Profiles: Action on West Fifty-Third Street – I". The New Yorker. Vol. 39, no. 43. pp. 49–82. Retrieved March 6, 2010. .
  • MacDonald, Dwight (December 19, 1953). "Profiles: Action on West Fifty-Third Street – II". The New Yorker. Vol. 39, no. 44. pp. 35–72. Retrieved March 6, 2010. .
  • Reich, Cary. The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer 1908–1958. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
  • Rockefeller, David. Memoirs. New York: Random House, 2002, pp. 443–51.
  • Roob, Rona. "Alfred H. Barr Jr.: A Chronicle of the Years 1902–1929." The New Criterion, special summer issue, 1987, pp. 1–19.