Our Fascination with Barns

Carole Bolsey, Waterfields I, oil on canvas, 6'6"x7'. Photo: Carole Bolsey

In February 2014, two new paintings were hung in the Oval Office occupied by President Barack Obama. These two paintings were done by Edward Hopper, and are of a barn and farmhouse. What is it about the barn that is so appealing to painters and makes it such a popular subject for painting? What is our attraction to barns?  Is it the purity of its form against a plain background of fields or tucked into a hillside?

Is it its sentimental appeal to our agrarian roots?  Is it symbolic of a simpler way of life? Is it a reminder of human presence minus the human form? Why are barn-shaped buildings ubiquitous? Is it something more cosmic? So many paintings of barns exist that it is impossible to count, yet the subject never grows old.

Carole Bolsey

One artist who addresses these questions is Carole Bolsey. I have had the great pleasure of visiting her studio. Attached to her New England farmhouse, her studio is a large, spacious sunlit space befitting her powerful and elegant spacious painterly light-filled paintings. Many of those paintings are of one or more barn-like shapes on a vast field of water, which she calls her "Waterfield" paintings. Bolsey has been fascinated by this pentagonal shape commonly known as "barn-shaped" for years, ever since, as she said, she "found a house and barn in New England, my first true home." Realizing that this shape has no name, in 1999 she assembled an exhibit of her work, along with others from different places and times, which are about this shape specifically.

The exhibit, which she called The Shape With No Name was held at the American Institute of Architects National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The catalogue, The Shape With No Name: The Art of Carole Bolsey (Buy from Amazon) is a soft-cover book with beautiful reproductions of Bolsey's paintings and an insightful forward written by well-known art critic Donald Kuspit.


Kuspit says about "the shape with no name" in his introduction to the catalogue:

"It is a particular structure in a particular place - a 'Greek Revival farmhouse built in 1835 and a 17th century Plymouth Colony barn'  - even as 'the four-sided peaked-roof heptahedron" can be found everywhere, both in urban and rural environments, in nearly every society, and recurring from time immemorial, as Bolsey acknowledges when she traces the heritage of her home 'back to England, with Danish, Saxon, Roman, and Greek antecedents.' It is thus an essential form rich with universal meaning. However differently its parts may be elaborated in different lifeworlds, adding personal and cultural nuance to their meaning, the basic form remains self-same - pure self-identity symbolizing unchanging integrity." (1)

Kuspit continues:

"It is even more meaningful than Bolsey acknowledges: the structure may be technically seven-sided - an isosceles triangle crowning a rectangle - but viewed from the front it is  pentagram. Viewing it that way, which is the way most people do, opens the way to its esoteric meaning, which most people are unaware of. The geometry may be self-evident, but its mystical meaning is not - it hides as much as it reveals - except to the initiated, that is, those who see things in depth rather than superficially: the irony of the structure is that the simple geometrical facade is a complex cosmic symbol, and has been one since antiquity." (2)

Some of Bolsey's barn paintings can be seen at Cross Mackenzie Gallery in Washington, DC. Her paintings continue to explore the mystery of "the shape with no name" just as many other painters continue to be intrigued by and compelled to paint this simple but profound form in the landscape.



1. Donald Kuspit, Anonymous Sanctuaries: Carole Bolsey's Paintings in The Shape with no Name: The  Art of Carole Bolsey, Grayson Publishing, LLC and Carole Bolsey, China, 2009, p. 6.

2. Ibid. p. 6.