In 1971, Barney A. Ebsworth (1934-2018) arranged a meeting with Charles Buckley, at that time the director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. It was a conversation that led the entrepreneur to redirect the focus of his nascent art collection, from 17th-century Dutch pictures and Japanese scroll paintings, towards American Modernism.
Following the meeting, Ebsworth immediately began immersing himself in research and
attending auctions across the United States. In 1973 he travelled
to the estate sale of the art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert,
who in 1926 had established the Downtown Gallery in New York,
and been a tireless champion of contemporary living American
artists, including, famously, Georgia O'Keeffe.
In his autobiography, Ebsworth described the sale; he lost out on a
John Marin watercolour to John D. Rockefeller but placed the winning bid for
Black, White and Blue, paying $47,000 for the
picture. The work was painted in 1930 at a time when O’Keeffe had begun spending
months in New Mexico, away from New York City and her husband,
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).
After the sale, Ebsworth was introduced to Lloyd Goodrich,
the director of the
Whitney Museum and curator of O’Keeffe’s 1970 retrospective.
‘Young man,’ Goodrich announced to Ebsworth, ‘in my opinion
you’ve bought O’Keeffe’s greatest picture.’
Not long after Ebsworth had bought Black, White and Blue, he received a phone call from Doris Bry, who at the time
acted as an agent for O’Keeffe. Bry had discovered who had
acquired the painting through Charles Buckley. ‘Georgia would
like you to come down to Abiquiú and meet her,’ she explained.
As an intensely private man and one who respected the privacy
of others, Ebsworth initially declined. When another invitation
came the following year, his answer was the same. It was
only after the third invitation, by which time Ebsworth realised
that O’Keeffe was 87 years old, that he accepted. ‘I think
she was baffled that I kept saying no when everyone else
was clamouring to meet her,’ he recalled years later.
‘I don’t believe in marriage,’ O’Keeffe confided to Ebsworth’s new bride, Patricia. ‘I'm just doing this for Barney’
The collector confessed that at first he felt intimidated by
O'Keeffe’s commanding presence, but the pair soon bonded
and Ebsworth began making regular trips to her home, Ghost
Ranch, in New Mexico. There was, he said, an unspoken agreement
that he would always do the travelling.
On Ebsworth’s fourth visit, O’Keeffe opened up
on the subject of Black, White and Blue. ‘[It] was
a message to a friend,’ she told him. ‘If he saw it, he didn’t
know it was to him and wouldn’t have known what it said.
And neither do I.’
‘Georgia,’ the straight-talking Ebsworth replied, ‘I read T.S.
Eliot in college. I didn’t know what in the world he was
talking about, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Over the following years, Ebsworth acquired four more of O’Keeffe’s
works, including a 1919 picture called
Music — Pink and Blue No.1, which the
artist herself suggested he hang next to Black, White and Blue.
Ebsworth eventually gifted the former to the Seattle Art
Museum; the latter he donated to the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, D.C.
The fifth O’Keeffe work that Ebsworth purchased was a portrait of
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). He happened to be looking
through O’Keeffe’s latest monograph when his phone rang.
It was Doris Bry, calling out of the blue. ‘Whom does this
belong to,’ Ebsworth asked of the charcoal portrait, which
he was looking at for the very first time.
‘It belongs to Georgia and it's hanging in front of me this
very minute,’ Bry answered.
‘Would it be for sale?’ asked Ebsworth.
‘It would be for you,’ she replied. Ebsworth negotiated an on-the-spot deal for the work, which is being offered by Christie’s on 13 November.
Ebsworth was struck by O’Keeffe’s skill as a portraitist. Apart from a handful of nudes and figure studies from 1916-18, she
only made portraits of two subjects during her
adult career — including Beauford Delaney.
O’Keeffe once said she only drew Delaney because she felt sorry
for him. Despite his exceptional talent as a painter, Delaney’s race and homosexuality made him an outsider. ‘He posed for
others because he had no heat in his studio,’ O'Keeffe recalled.
Yet in the portrait, Delaney's enigmatic smile suggests this
pair of outsiders shared something of a bond.
Delaney was also a frequent visitor to
An American Place, the gallery founded by Alfred Stieglitz. Indeed, it was there that O’Keeffe and
Delaney first met. An American Place closed closed in 1946
after Stieglitz’s death, but its place in the history of
20th-century American art was recognised by Ebsworth, who
named the Jim Olson-designed Seattle home he built specifically to house his collection of Modernist art after the famous
In 1978 Ebsworth purchased another O’Keeffe work, Horn and Feather (1937), pictured above. The
work had been sold at Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in
New York in 1953, before being bought by Bry. Acquiring the
picture, which is also included in the
upcoming Christie’s auction, helped Ebsworth expand his
collection of O'Keeffe’s work to encompass her abstract,
figurative and still-life periods.
Ebsworth continued to visit O’Keeffe well into her old age — she was 98 when she died in 1986 — and their friendship deepened. He asked O’Keeffe if he could
marry his second wife, Patricia, in secrecy at Ghost Ranch,
with the artist acting as their witness. ‘You’re the only
person I know who could be the maid of honour and the best
man,’ he told her. On the day of their wedding, O’Keeffe
confided in Patricia, ‘I don’t believe in marriage, I’m just
doing this for Barney.’
They continued to stay in touch regularly, talking for at least an hour on the phone sometimes, but O’Keeffe passed away not long after the wedding. ‘I’ve always
tried to be circumspect about the most personal details of
her life,’ Ebsworth revealed in his autobiography. ‘I figure
that she put her trust in me for a reason.’
Ebsworth credited O’Keeffe with changing his mind about only
collecting works by deceased artists. ‘As I grew older, I
realised that knowing the creators of art had value too,’
he wrote in 2012. ‘Now I wish I had met all of the artists
through the years; but Georgia will always be special to
me. I miss her.’