ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
The Dream We Live With
signed and inscribed 'Study ERNIE BARNES' (lower right)
acrylic on paper
2014 x 32 in. (51.4 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted in 1994.
Private collection, California, circa 1990s
Private collection, California, 2012
By descent from the above to the present owner
We would like to thank Luz Rodriguez at the Ernie Barnes Estate for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
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Lot Essay

A radical reclamation of the narrative of a well-known American picture, Ernie Barnes’ The Dream We Live With celebrates the groundbreaking decision of Brown v. Board of Education and the reverberations of joy felt across Black Americans. The present lot is reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With (1964), a picture in which the artist depicts Ruby Bridges, the first Black student to attend school at a historically white institution in New Orleans following the decision of Brown v. Board of Education. At the age of six, Ruby Bridges’ attendance represented the first active practice of desegregation in Louisiana, schools in the state refusing to assimilate to the law years after the Supreme Court decision was ruled. A victim of systemic hatred, violence, and verbal slurs, Ruby Bridges walks to class escorted by four US marshals.

Both the aforementioned artwork and its respective history precede the present lot, and Barnes’ revision is distinctly more dynamic and empowering. Though similar in composition, here the U.S. marshals have been replaced by two Black guiding figures, the faces of whom Barnes has decided to omit. A confident woman leads the young girl toward the school, a suit-donned man strutting behind her. In using the presence of strong Black figures to walk alongside this younger schoolgirl, Barnes equips the canvas with a heightened sense of autonomy in his figures, a lineage of excellence resulting from this political shift. Barnes paints the promise that such a historical moment brought, a promise of Black success in a country defined by its antithesis.

The young girl’s is the only face retained in Barnes’ execution of the picture, her chin held high and her expression fearless. As a contrast to the depiction of violence in Rockwell’s picture, Barnes paints confidence and soul. The energy of his working aesthetic is evermore present; his figures exhibit an inherent dynamism, reflective of Barnes’ study of movement and his keen ability to capture energy in his gestural figurations. The Dream We Live With is a reminder to the artist and the viewer alike of the monumental significance of this historical moment, setting a tone of empowerment and promise that reverberates beyond the canvas.
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