Matthew Barnes

Matthew Barnes (1880-1951)

Matthew Barnes was born in Scotland in 1880. During his childhood, Barnes was fascinated by Scottish folklore, an influence that would permeate his artistic career.  At the turn of the century Barnes and his family left rural Scotland for New York City, where Barnes began training as a plasterer.

Only after moving the San Francisco in 1906, did the artist begin experimenting with painting. Working as a plasterer during the day, Barnes would work on his art in the evening. The artist was entirely self-taught and never gained proper art training. In this way, Barnes’s art developed a distinctive style and method unlike other artists of the period. He became known for his fantasy-like scenes, ominous and mysterious, painted in a somewhat surrealist style.  Working during the same period as Europeans Surrealists Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali, Barnes was not mimicking their work of but, rather, exploring similar scenes reminiscent of the subconscious.

A very solitary person, Barnes did not align himself with any school of painting in the San Francisco area or abroad. He worked in a dark studio with only a single, light bulb attached to his easel.  Therefore, his paintings are very dark and must be extensively well lit.

Winter's Widow, 1939 Oil on canvas 20"x 29"

Barnes sold his first painting in the 1930s. He also continued working as a plasterer and in 1931 assisted with Diego Rivera’s Mural The Making of a Fresco in the San Francisco Art Institute.  It was the first of two paintings completed by Rivera in San Francisco during the Great Depression. Within the mural Rivera depicted Bay area architects, sculptors, and artists at work on a fresco, including Matthew Barnes. He is seen painting a section of white, and holding a paper in his hand. 

Barnes work was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1936 and a memorial exhibition in 1952.


Oakland Museum, Oakland, California

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA

Frederick R. Weisman Museum, Minneapolis, MN


“Matthew Barnes.” Biography from

Colma, 1943 Oil on canvas 20"x 24"

Noe Valley, 1943 Oil on canvas 20" x 24"

Pirate's Cove, 1939 Oil on canvas 18" x 22"

Sacramento Street, 1943 Oil on canvas 22" x 18"

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