Barkley L. Hendricks and the Old Masters

In celebration of our highly acclaimed exhibition Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick, enjoy an excerpt from Curator Aimee Ng’s introductory essay from the show’s catalogue. The publication—available for purchase from the Museum Shop—also features an essay by Consulting Curator Antwaun Sargent, entries for each object in the show (with numerous previously unpublished archival photographs), and reflections by eight major contemporary artists and cultural figures who were influenced by Hendricks’s groundbreaking work.

The exhibition is on view at Frick Madison through January 7, 2024.

Man in a black hat holding a camera up to a mirror in an art studio
Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017), Self-Portrait with Black Hat, 1980–2013. Digital C-print, 27 3/4 x 18 3/4 in. (70.5 x 47.6 cm). All works by the artist illustrated are © Barkley L. Hendricks, courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I wasn’t a part of any “school.” The association I had with artists in Philadelphia didn’t inspire me in any direction other than my own. I spent my time looking to the Old Masters.
—Barkley L. Hendricks, 2017

During a visit to The Frick Collection in 2011, Barkley L. Hendricks responded to a question about the absence of people of color in Old Master paintings, like those by Rembrandt he had just seen in the museum. His answer—generous, wry, and matter of fact—suggested that one simply had to go down to the waterfront to find them loading barges and lifting bales; Rembrandt, however, “was dealing with the monied folks of Holland.” Coming through in these remarks are Hendricks’s confidence, his acceptance of the facts of history and its undeniable injustices, and his assurance in his own capacity to make history in his own time.

It was perhaps with the same confidence that the twenty-one-year-old artist—touring Europe in 1966 and seeing “how limited the representation of black figures has been in Western art history, and how few of those depicted have been truly humanizing or personalized portraits”—marshalled the hallmarks of European artistic mastery to portray people of his life and world in 1960s America. His encounters with Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and other Old Masters—eye to eye, artist to artist—led him to imbue his subjects, most of them people of color, with that confidence, establishing the power, dignity, and poise for which his portraits are known.

Arched gilded portrait of a woman with a large afro hairstyle between two marble busts under a sign reading "Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick"
Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama flanked at the entrance of Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick by The Frick Collection’s Armand-Thomas Hue, Marquis de Miromesnil (left) and Madame His (right) by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Photo: George Koelle

This publication and the exhibition it accompanies bridge two distinct fields of art and history: early modern Europe and America of the late 1960s to early 1980s. People will bring to them a range of perspectives that may at times be at odds. Elements taken for granted by some may be provocative or offensive to others; for example, Old Masters remains for some a useful term, deriving from the mastery of craft, to refer to European artists from the Renaissance to about 1800, while for others it is outdated and embodies sexist and imperial legacies. The positions are not mutually exclusive; some will identify with both.

Individual works of art can also elicit opposing perspectives, as, for some, historical European paintings are pinnacles of Western achievement, while for others they represent the atrocities inflicted upon Black and Indigenous peoples for centuries (I have witnessed such oppositions firsthand). The acknowledgment of and appreciation for multiple and sometimes conflicting views underlies this project, for the union of disparate worlds, the bridging of difference, is inherent in the art of Barkley L. Hendricks.

Five large, colorful portraits hanging in a gallery with gray walls
Gallery view of Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick, featuring (from left) Woody, APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers), Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith), October’s Gone...Goodnight, and Blood (Donald Formey). Photo: George Koelle

Borrowing and emulation have long been crucial components of artistic practice. Of course, similarities between works of art are not always the result of imitation or derivation: sometimes, artists solve artistic problems independently, centuries and worlds apart, connected not by influence but by common pursuits. And though Hendricks’s engagement with historical European art is the subject of this essay, it is important to note that he was inspired by art and culture from around the world and across time.

In the years after his first trip to Europe in 1966, he visited Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. In the late 1970s he traveled to Africa (primarily Nigeria), and from 1980 onward he visited the Caribbean (primarily Jamaica). He was interested in many fields of art, especially African and Indigenous art, and music, particularly jazz. He worked in various media—including oil and acrylic paints (occasionally Magna), watercolor and drawings on paper, collage, sculpture, and photography—and in several themes and genres, including basketball paintings and landscapes. Sometimes, he even made his own frames.

One critic referred to seeing “two” Barkley L. Hendrickses when viewing his portraits alongside his landscapes. His ostensibly discrete bodies of work, some made simultaneously alongside his most iconic portraits, testify to the richness and versatility of his creativity. It also has historical precedent. The term Renaissance man denotes an individual who is skilled in many capacities, referring to artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, who made paintings and drawings while conducting scientific studies and designing machines and architecture. In many ways, Barkley L. Hendricks was a Renaissance man.

Two modern portraits of women flanking a gallery with two late nineteenth-century portraits of women in pink dresses
Gallery view featuring Hendricks’s Miss T (left) and Ma Petite Kumquat (right), with the Frick’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux and Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland by James McNeill Whistler in the gallery beyond. Photo: George Koelle

Race is central to Hendricks’s practice. Critics have not always appreciated the audacity of his project: exalting contemporary Black figures by adapting the visual language of European Grand Manner portraiture. An early reviewer dismissed the significance of race in his portraits, suggesting that “his subjects notwithstanding,” referring to his Black sitters, Hendricks’s works are “not political” (implying that this was a shortcoming). But it was precisely who his subjects were, together with how he portrayed them, that electrified his art: at a time of significant political pressure on Black artists in America in the late 1960s and ’70s, it was in some ways an act of bravery for him to join forces with the very legacies of European art and power that the Black Arts Movement sought to expose and overcome.

In these portraits, Hendricks does not picture violence, even if at times he alludes to struggles of Black Americans in his titles—for example, in the title of his early self-portrait Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People—Bobby Seale) (1969, private collection; not included in the exhibition). European portraits like Rembrandt’s isolate affluent individuals without explicit reference to the horrors of colonization and enslavement that in many cases made their wealth possible—excepting those that include shackled or subservient Black figures—but the clues are there, in the pearls harvested from colonies in Southeast Asia, beaver-felt hats from colonies in North America, and the very material of mahogany panels, from colonies in the Caribbean and Central and South America, on which some European portraits are painted. Hendricks’s portraits, too, focus on his subjects’ dignity, stylishness, and individuality, with more layers and complexity than may at first meet the eye.

This subtlety contrasted somewhat with the artistic culture around Black subjects in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Of the art of this moment, Hendricks remarked:

How many black people...were part of any kind of visual information that didn’t deal with what I call the misery of my peeps? You know, you can always find visual information that deals with the hardship, slavery, and all the rest of it. I’m not denying any of this by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m trying to sort of address a situation that’s not a part of that.
Two white-on-white portraits of men flanking a triple portrait of a man in a long blue coat in a gallery beyond
Gallery view featuring Hendricks’s Slick (left) and Steve (right), with Bahsir (Robert Gowens) in the gallery beyond. Photo: George Koelle

He chose to highlight the “beauty, genius, skill” of Black people “that’s a part of what we’ve brought to America and the world that doesn’t get addressed the way that I feel it could.” It is only relatively recently—about 2008, when Trevor Schoonmaker mounted the Birth of the Cool exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, which traveled across the United States—that Hendricks’s project has come to be embraced widely. His work was not part of a movement, nor was he part of any “school.” His singularity was a feat of boldness and independence that paved a path for subsequent artists to pursue in their own ways. Hendricks’s portraiture is about legacy and what one does with it.


Hendricks was a voracious museum-goer with a keen eye for historical techniques, styles, and solutions, and he transformed his borrowings and emulations into something utterly new. As such, his debt to Old Master painting remains a rich topic that could be explored in many more pages than this essay. But the debt also goes the other way. Hendricks showed a way to productively engage with the complex legacies of historical European art while honoring people largely excluded from its visual record. His project has encouraged generations of audiences and artists to see Old Master paintings as they may never have otherwise, bringing them alive for viewers who might see historical European art in very different ways (achievements; atrocities)—bridging, through his art, what even today can seem like insurmountable distances between people.

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