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Ernie Barnes

Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. (aka Ernie Barnes)
July 15, 1938 – April 27, 2009
Nationality: American
Notable: Artist


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Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. was born in Durham, NC to a father who was a shipping clerk at a tobacco company and a mother who worked as the supervisor of domestic staff in a private home. Barnes’s mother worked in the home of a prominent local attorney and he was allowed to indulge in art books and classical music while visiting. Growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era meant that as a youth Barnes was unable to visit local museums. But, due to his early exposure to the arts Barnes was knowledgeable about several master artists and their works of art.

Ernie Barnes was bullied as a child due to his chubbiness and lack of athletic ability which resulted in him becoming a loner and withdrawing into himself and his sketchbooks. A teacher, Tommy Tucker, saw Barnes’ sketches and explained how weightlifting had positively affected him as a youth. During the conversation, Barnes shared his goals for the future and was motivated to become more disciplined physically and as an artist.

By his senior year of high school, Ernie Barnes had become captain of the football team and a champion in the shot put. Distinguishing himself as an athlete resulted in 26 scholarship offers. Due to segregation, Barnes was unable to attend Duke University or the University of North Carolina. Instead, he chose to attend North Carolina College (which is now North Carolina Central University) as an art major.

Barnes went on to be selected as a 10th round draft pick by the Baltimore Colts. During his five years in the NFL Barnes also played for the Titans of New York, San Diego Chargers, and the Denver Broncos. In 1965, he joined the Canadian Football League but experienced a career-ending injury that forced him into early retirement and returned his focus to art.

While attending the 1965 NFL owners meeting, Barnes met Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets. Werblin was impressed by Barnes and sponsored the transport of his paintings to New York City where they were evaluated by art critics. Following the positive showing, Werblin signed Barnes as a salaried player but had him focus on painting. In 1966, Barnes unveiled his debut solo exhibit at the Grand Central Art Galleries which proved to be incredibly successful with all of the paintings being sold.

Despite his talent and successful exhibits, Barnes was overlooked by the mainstream art world. But he carved out a niche for himself by networking with athletes, entertainers, and NFL professionals who commissioned and bought his paintings. Barnes’ most famous painting, The Sugar Shack, was featured in Good Times and on Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album cover. Other paintings were used by various jazz and R&B artists for album covers.

In 1971, Ernie Barnes began developing his idea for The Beauty of the Ghetto Exhibit. Influenced by the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s, Barnes created a collection of 35 paintings that toured the country making stops in major cities along the way. Barnes explained the exhibit as not being intended to encourage people to remain in the ghetto but instead to show that life could still be beautiful. It was also during this period that he began painting his subjects with their eyes closed. This symbolized blindness to one another’s humanity, seeing people but making assumptions without being aware of their humanity.

Ernie Barnes continued working on his art and completed several commissioned sports paintings in the 1980s and 1990s. He also received numerous awards from various sports associations. Following the 1992 LA riots, Barnes’ painting Growth Through Limits was featured in inspirational billboards around the city. Inspired by 9/11, Barnes created In Remembrance which was later donated to Philadelphia’s African-American Museum. Over the years, Barnes released his paintings as prints to make them available for sale as affordable art.

In 2009, Ernie Barnes died at the age of 70 from myeloid leukemia.


  1. “Ernie Barnes.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., July 11, 2019.
  2. “Ernie Barnes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 10, 2019.
  3. Sayej, Nadja. “Ernie Barnes: the Overlooked Legacy of the Athlete Turned Celebrity Artist.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 27, 2019.

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