Ernie Barnes’ iconic painting ‘The Sugar Shack’ goes on view at MFAH ahead of Juneteenth

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Collection of William O. Perkins III and Lara
Perkins. © Ernie Barnes Family Trust

A 1976 painting by American artist Ernie Barnes – widely recognized for its use on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You and in the credits of the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom Good Times – will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, thanks to a loan by Houston collector Bill Perkins.

Last month, Perkins purchased Barnes’ painting The Sugar Shack – a work that Perkins called formative in his own artistic consciousness, in an interview with the New York Times – for a record-setting $15.275 million from Christie’s auction house.

The MFAH will display the painting in the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in time for Juneteenth celebrations, from June 15 through December 31, 2022.

“Lara and I are thrilled to be able to share this phenomenal painting with all of Houston,” said Perkins in a statement.

“As I’ve said many times, acquiring The Sugar Shack was for me the realization of a childhood dream. I know that Ernie Barnes’ masterwork will be as inspirational for all those who will see it as it has been for us,” he said.

Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. (1938-2009) was born in Durham, North Carolina, at the height of Jim Crow. His family lived in what was then called “The Bottom,” a community near the Hayti District of the city. His father worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company in Durham. His mother oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and Board of Education member, who encouraged Barnes to read art books and listen to classical music. By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. Although initially not athletic, by his senior year in high school, Barnes became the captain of the football team.

Barnes enrolled at the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham (formerly North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University) majoring in art on a full athletic scholarship. After college, he played professional football into the mid-1960s, before devoting himself fulltime to his painting, in Los Angeles.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A cultural landmark of a painting, Barnes’ The Sugar Shack depicts joyful dancers in a crowded Black music hall in segregated mid-century North Carolina.

The MFAH says that Barnes recalled being inspired by a childhood memory of sneaking into a local dance hall called the Armory.

“The vivid image, with its dynamic, elongated figures dominating the packed space of a dance floor and illuminated by a cone of light from a single bulb, reflects what became known as the Black Romantic tradition,” described the MFAH in a press release.

The artist painted two versions of The Sugar Shack – the first in 1971, and this second version in 1976.

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