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France Honors Will Barnet

On January 19th, 2012, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, conferred the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on Will Barnet, artist, painter, printmaker, and professor with the following speech.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you so much for being here on such a special evening. Tonight we have with us one of the most accomplished and important American artists, painters, printmakers and art professors of the 20th century… Will Barnet. It is truly an honor, Mr. Barnet, to welcome you to the French Embassy.

Today, your work can be seen in almost every major museum in the US and you have been awarded many prizes and medals.

But it has not always been all museum exhibitions, honors and awards for you. Before you came to be revered by your colleagues as, in the words of Ira Goldberg, a “master infused with a century of knowledge and experience”, you were a 19-year-old with a scholarship to the Art Students League. You left the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to come to NYC to discover what “art” meant, and to be free and independent.

From that moment forward, you consistently opted for a unique voice when it came to your art, even though it was often contrary to the easier or more popular path. Your aesthetic was and has been solely your own, never conforming to the styles of your contemporaries. 

You once stated “I remember at the age of 12 sitting on a big rock in front of the Beverly, Massachusetts, lighthouse that faced the Atlantic Ocean directly across from Paris and dreaming of going to Paris. At the time I was reading French novels and learning about French art. What kept me alive was that I identified with the masters – they were my guiding light.”

While at the League, you developed your skills as a print-maker, and were critical in elevating printmaking standards and techniques. Several of your summers were spent in Paris, working on prints and with art commissioner Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, among others in the French art world.

Your teaching career blossomed when you became the youngest printmaking instructor at the Art Students League. You're remained at the league from 1942 to 1979 and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Yale University, and Cooper Union. And importantly, your insight, talent and guiding light influenced major artists such as James Rosenquist, Know Martin, Paul Jenkis, and Cy Twombly.

Inspired by Ingres, Picasso, Cézanne, you aspired to be a modern American painter. The retrospective of your work proves that you became more than that and uniquely captured the American sensibility the entire way. From your stylized figurative compositions of the 1960s, depicting social realism, to your more recent work made of simpler abstract pieces, you have lived through the art of the 20th century and have become a central figure of American printmaking and painting.

Still today, at the age of 100, you paint 3 to 4 hours every day, a testament to the remarkable longevity of your career. When I’m a hundred, I hope I can be just like you. And in an article for the New York Times you claimed, “I’ve seen it all but I want to see more”!

Just last year, in honor of your centennial, museums, all around the US celebrated you and your work. We also should say that The Museum Of Modern Art’s collection of your work dates from 1951 to 2008 – this is a tribute to the on-going vitality of your art.

The Order of the Arts of Letters is given to those who have made an extraordinary contribution to the arts.

Mr. Barnet, you are a master and a legend.

You have given so much of yourself to the world of art. Your whole life and work is all about love and passion. It is especially evident to the people here for you tonight.

It is my great pleasure to confer upon you the medal of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Will Barnet, au nom du Ministre de la Culture, je vous fais chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.