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Barr, Alfred H., Jr.

    Image Credit: The Art Story

    Full Name: Barr, Alfred H., Jr.

    Other Names:

    • Alfred Hamilton Barr, Jr.

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1902

    Date Died: 1981

    Place Born: Detroit, Wayne, MI, USA

    Place Died: Salisbury, Litchfield, CT, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Modern (style or period) and museums (institutions)

    Career(s): directors (administrators), founders (originators), and museum directors


    Founder, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Barr was the son of a Presbyterian minister, Alfred Hamilton Barr, Sr., and a homemaker Annie Elizabeth Wilson (Barr). The family moved to Baltimore where Barr was raised. His childhood friends included Edward Stauffer King, later director of the Walters Art Gallery. Barr graduated at age 16 (valedictorian) from high school and entered Princeton University in 1918. At that the same year he read Henry Adam’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres influencing him toward art history. At Princeton he selected art history as his major in 1920, the year Allan Marquand, the department founder, retired. Barr’s classes included the 1920 medieval course by Charles Rufus Morey, and the Italian renaissance and modern classes of Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. His fellow undergraduate art history students included Millard Meiss. After graduating (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1922, Barr received his A. M. in 1923 and began teaching at Vassar College while pursuing his Ph.D. at Harvard. His students at Vassar included the later Art Institute of Chicago curator Katharine Kuh. Barr made his first trip to Europe in 1924. At Harvard, he studied with Paul J. Sachs in Sach’s legendary art museum course. In 1925 Barr taught at Princeton and in 1926-1927 at Wellesley (Wellesley’s first modern art course). His students at Wellesley included Helen M. Franc, who would later work under him at the Museum of Modern Art. Barr curated the first modern-art exhibition at Harvard’s Fogg art museum under Sachs. Vanity Fair magazine published his requirements for entrance into his art class the same year. At Harvard, Barr met fellow art student Jere Abbott and the two spent much time in Paris studying art. In 1927 Barr visited the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, and witnessed modernism firsthand. In 1928, when Sachs was asked to recommend a student to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) to direct a new museum for modern art, Sachs chose Barr. Rockefeller’s board of directors included Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) and A. Conger Goodyear (1877-1964). Barr met fellow Harvard classmate Philip Johnson in 1929 who would be a personal advisor in later years. Shortly after the stock market crash in 1929, Barr opened the first exhibition of the new museum in the 12th floor of the Heckscher building. Barr appointed Abbott to be his associate director and Abbott took care of much of the day-to-day operations of the museum. But a mysterious falling out between Abbott (who was a homosexual) and Barr (or the Board of directors) took place, and Abbott left the Museum. In 1932 Barr married Margaret “Marga” Scolari-Fitzmaurice (d. 1987), an Italian-born art historian studying at New York University on a fellowship, in 1930. In 1931 for an exhibition on modern architecture, Barr coined the term “international style” to describe the movement, a show curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Johnson. In 1932 Johnson funded the new department of architecture and became its first curator. Barr was in Germany in 1932 and witnessed the Nazi closing of art galleries. In 1933 he wrote on behalf of Erwin Panofsky‘s appointment to the Courtauld Institute and in 1934 at Panofsky’s suggestion, sponsored Panofsky’s student Horst Woldemar Janson. During these years Barr’s main job was to advise the trustees of the museum on their personal art purchases; the museum spent only $1000 on art purchases the first six years of its existence. In 1935 Barr was one of those invited to the famous, informal gathering of art scholars organized by Meyer Schapiro that included Robert Goldwater, the dealer Jerome Klein, Panofsky and Lewis Mumford. That year he hired Beaumont Newhall to be curator of photography and Iris Barry (1895-1969) to establish the first film library to part of a museum. In 1939 the first of Barr’s panegyrics to Picasso appeared: Picasso: Forty Years of his Art. The same year, a critique of Barr’s approach to Cubism was published by the Columbia art historian Meyer Schapiro. In 1943 Steven Clark, a conservative, became chairman of the Board of the MoMA. Disputes with Barr erupted and Clark fired him. The popular legend, told years later, that Barr retired to the library, refusing to leave, however, is not true. Barr was a poor administrator and procrastinator; his long-awaited history of modern art never appeared. The same year James Thrall Soby was appointed assistant director, and a special position created for Barr (his salary cut to $6000/year). In 1944 the Museum appointed René d’Harnoncourt as its director. d’Harnoncourt’s sensitivity to the situation with Barr and gentle personality allowed both men to function positively. Barr remained true to the artists whom he championed. In 1944, during the height of World War II, Piet Mondrian when died in New York, Barr arranged for his funeral. In 1946, Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art appeared by Barr. Though he had left Harvard for the Museum without completing his dissertation, Barr submitted the Picasso book in 1947 and through special arrangement, Harvard awarded him a Ph.D. Barr assumed the title of “Director of Collections” that year, returning to his old office, and his salary changed to $10,000. In 1949 Princeton awarded him an honorary doctorate. Barr’s MoMA focused on European modern art; the Guggenheim gave the first exhibitions to Pollock, Rothko (whose work Barr never purchase), and Baziotes. Even in the 1960s, Barr declined to purchase Pop art, refusing a work at one point in order to buy a twelfth Leger. In 1948, the position of the MoMA vis-a-vis the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums brought an agreement that MoMa would sell its works to the Met for $191,000 in order for it to constantly house only truly modern art. By 1951 the deal had dissolved and in 1953 MoMA Board chairman John Hay “Jock” Whitney (1904-1982) confirmed that the MoMA would not pass on works to other museums. In 1951 Barr published his extended catalog and book, Matisse: His Art and his Public, written during the time he was without a museum appointment. The book was a standard in Matisse studies for many years. Barr was approached during this time to write the volume on modern art for the Pelican History of Art series, but he declined. The volumes in the series were later divided into European and American art, written by Kurt Badt and John Wilmerding. Barr officially retired from the Museum in 1967. In the years after his retirement, Alzheimer’s disease set in. In 1975 he was committed to a nursing home. He died at the Salisbury, CT facility in 1981. Barr was the great publicizers of modern art for the American Public, the major catalyst for public-acceptance of modern art in America. Hired initially by the wealthy New York art collecting elite to validate their tastes by creating a museum for their art, he acted as their advisor and procurer of art during the early years when the Museum bought almost no art at all. Much has been written about the “eye” of Barr, (i.e., his ability to identify the highest quality work of art). The works he selected for the museum and its benefactors (many of which were eventually donated to the the Museum) formed the canon of modern art history. But his blindnesses to other art movements were equally glaring. The Museum was late to purchase the work of the New York abstract expressionists even though they lived and exhibited in the shadow of the museum. As a museum director, he instituted aggressive advertising campaigns for the museum at a time when few other art museums did, insisting that exhibition catalogs be accessible both financially and intellectually to the public. He was not a scholar. His histories of modern art and artists are largely drawn from personal experience (though he spoke neither French nor German) and from questionnaires mailed to the artists (such as Matisse). His concept of art history was a construct of “isms” linked in a linear fashion. Meyer Schapiro’s famous critic of Barr’s theory in 1937 accused him of explaining the rise of abstract art “independent of historical conditions.” Yet Kuh, recalling his lectures at Vassar, cited him as an inspirational force because he wove social history into his lectures. Barr avoided employing theories from other disciplines, such as Freudian analysis for example, in art history. The respect Barr commanded in a largely conservative art world is best summed in the fact that he was the only historian to write on the subject of modern art for the Gazette des Beaux Arts in the 1940s.

    Selected Bibliography

    • [dissertation:] Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art. Harvard University, 1947;
    • Eighth Loan Exhibition: Corot, Daumier. New York: Plandome Press, 1930;
    • German Painting and Sculpture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1931;
    • Modern Works of Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art; W.W. Norton & Company, 1934 [fifth anniversary exhibition];
    • and Cahill, Holger. Art in America in Modern Times. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1934;
    • and Cahill, Holger. Art in America: a Complete Survey. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935;
    • Cubism and Abstract Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936;
    • Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1936;
    • Picasso: Forty Years of his Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1939;
    • Art in Our Time: an Exhibition to Celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the Museum of Modern Art and the Opening of its New Building, Held at the Time of the New York World’s Fair. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1939.
    • What is Modern Painting? Introductory Series to the Modern Arts, 2. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943;
    • Picasso: Fifty years of his Art. [revision of “Forty Years of His Art,” above] New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1946;
    • Matisse: his Art and his Public. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951;


    • “Nature of Abstract Art.” Marxist Quarterly 1 (1937): 77-98 [the critique of Alfred Barr’s Cubism];
    • Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 69;
    • Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 89-90;
    • Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Missionary for the Modern. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989;
    • Kantor, Sybil Gordon. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002;
    • Kuh, Katherine. My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator. New York: Arcade, 2006, p. xvii.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Barr, Alfred H., Jr.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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