John Barber was 7, walking the beach at Cape Hatteras with his family, when he came upon a man sitting under an umbrella with an easel set up. “He was painting a scene of the Hatteras lighthouse,” recalls Barber.
“I decided at that time I wanted to be an artist and focus my attention on the sea.”
From such decisions, lives are made. Born in North Carolina, the 69-year-old artist is considered a dean of American marine art and is strongly associated with Chesapeake Bay — a “meticulous chronicler of its watermen, vessels and lifestyles.”
Barber discovered the Chesapeake when he settled in Virginia. “So different from the Atlantic shore,” he says. “Men and women lived and worked along its shore, interacted with the Bay, built boats to harvest the Bay’s bounty of crabs, clams, fish and oysters.”
“Twilight Calm,” an 11-by-17-inch oil painting, is a good example of his work. Barber captured three skipjacks in the last rays of the setting sun, the so-called “red sky at night” reflected on dappled waters while feathery clouds linger overhead.
The feel is impressionistic, but there’s detail here, too. The skipjack in the center, backlit by the setting sun, shows a wealth of detail — the rigging, the sails, the mast hoops and davits helping to define the workboat.
“[Accuracy] is certainly important to me and to those who make their livelihood from the Bay,” says Barber. “I feel that it is incumbent upon me to tell their story with accuracy.”
Barber was honored with the National Maritime Historical Society’s Distinguished Service Award for his environmental and philanthropic efforts to preserve the Chesapeake. (Other honorees include legendary yacht designer Olin J. Stephens, broadcaster Walter Cronkite, and yachtsmen Gary Jobson and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, as well as fellow marine artists John Stobart and John Mecray.) His 1996 book, John M. Barber’s Chesapeake, is a retrospective of the artist’s career, published by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
To view this and other works by John M. Barber, visit the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery website at jrusselljinishiangallery.com or visit the gallery at 1899 Bronson Road in Fairfield, Connecticut.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.