Artist Profile: Ernie Barnes

Our June 4, 2020 sale of African-American Fine Art features a run of works by Ernie Barnes. Here the artist’s estate takes us through Barnes’ journey through being a professional athlete and notable artist.

Ernie Barnes: Artist & Athlete

Artist Ernie Barnes was born July 15, 1938 in Durham, North Carolina during the height of the Jim Crow Era. His parents lived in a home in a section of the city called “The Bottom.” His father, Ernest Barnes, Sr., was a shipping clerk for Liggett & Myers tobacco company. His mother, Fannie Geer Barnes, supervised the household for a prominent attorney. On days he accompanied his mother to work, the attorney would share his extensive art book collection with Barnes. By elementary school, Barnes was already familiar with the Old Master painters.

Bullied as a child for his shyness and sensitivity, Barnes found solace in drawing. In his freshman year, a weightlifting coach placed Barnes on a fitness program which taught him effort and discipline. By his senior year at segregated Hillside High School, Barnes was captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put. Barnes earned a full athletic scholarship to North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) where his art instructor, sculptor Ed Wilson, encouraged him to create images from his own life experiences. In 1960, Barnes was one of 30 African Americans drafted into the National Football League. (He was one of nine players selected that year from a historically black college and university.) For five seasons, Barnes was an offensive lineman for the New York Titans, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. In 1965, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin paid Barnes a season’s salary “to paint” and subsequently sponsored Ernie Barnes’s first solo art exhibition at the prestigious Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. After the success of the show, at age 28, Barnes settled in Los Angeles to devote himself to art.

Ernie Barnes, Marble Shooter, acrylic on canvas, 1969. Estimate $25,000 to $35,000.

Barnes was the first American professional athlete to become a noted painter. From his sports experience and the study of anatomy, Barnes’ unique style of elongation captures the movement, energy and grace of his subjects. This earned him numerous appointments, including “Sports Artist of the 1984 Olympic Games” in Los Angeles and “America’s Best Painter of Sports” by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives. He was commissioned to paint artwork for the National Basketball Association, Los Angeles Lakers, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders, educational institutions, corporations, musicians, celebrities and professional athletes. His cherished painting The Bench, which Barnes created in 1959 before his rookie season, was presented in 2014 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The art of Ernie Barnes appears in television, in movies and on album covers, including his famous dance hall scene, The Sugar Shack. Appearing on the television series Good Times and the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You, this 1970s painting is embedded in American popular culture. His pride for North Carolina is evident in his artwork of pool halls, barbershops, porch ladies, church, street singers, sandlot games and other memories of growing up in the South. His commentary on dance, music, sports, women, education, social justice and everyday life continues to inspire viewers regardless of age, race, religion, education and social status. Many of Barnes’s paintings were exhibited in The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes at the North Carolina Museum of History, from June 29, 2018 to May 27, 2019. In 2019, Barnes received a retrospective exhibition at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles: Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, curated by Bridget R. Crooks, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Art History at the University of California at Irvine.

Related Reading: Artist Profile: Aaron Douglas

Do you have a work by Ernie Barnes?

Learn about how to consign to an auction, and send us a note about your item.

Ernie Barnes, Untitled (The Hook Shot), acrylic on canvas, circa 1971. Sold for $30,000 in April 2015.