Alfred H. Barr, Jr

Alfred Hamilton Barr, Jr. (January 28, 1902 – August 15, 1981), known as Alfred H. Barr, Jr., 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]


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 would not be awarded the PhD until 1946.[2]

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.[3]

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 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.

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.[4]

In 1943, Museum of Modern Art president Nelson Rockefeller, to whom Barr had been personal art advisor for many years, 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.[5]

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.[6]

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)


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


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.
  • 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.
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  • 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.

External links

  • Alfred H. Barr, Jr. papers in the Museum of Modern Art Archives
  • Archives of American Art

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