Jean Barnard’s grandfather was an oil painter. He sat in a room — one-legged after losing a bout with diabetes — and painted. His daughter Flora inherited his artistic tendencies and at the age of 17 she was employed by a designer to lurk in the corners of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Madison Square Garden, recording the latest Paris fashions. Then, with the designs freshly in her head, Flora ran back to the office to sketch the details, from the neckline to the hem, of the dresses she had just seen. The sketches were then turned into cheaper and more accessible versions of the 19th century Paris couture.
Jean, now 91, and a New Haven resident, inherited the artistic talent that’s run in her family for three generations.
Born in Brooklyn in 1918, Jean grew up in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., a bustling town not far from the George Washington Bridge. Flora developed rheumatoid arthritis and was bed-ridden for two years, while Jean, the oldest of four children, took over her mother’s domestic duties.
Each summer, the family looked forward to leaving the suburbs and taking the train to Vermont to stay on an obliging farmer’s homestead. Jean particularly loved the horses on the farms and once, she and a friend mustered enough courage to hitch a farmer’s horse to a buggy after watching him do it with ease. And as the pair began to trot down the road, farmers and wives ran out of their houses “like a hive of bees” to stop the children from going any further. The horse bolted with the girls in tow across and intersection and into a wall.
“We were put in our room the rest of the day and punished,” remembered Jean.
In her 10th summer in Vermont, Jean and her father walked to Lake Hortonia where her father bought a parcel of land. Here she helped her father clear brush to make way for the cottage that would house many memories.
Today, a painting of the snow-covered cottage hangs inside her doorway in her house in New Haven. These days, Jean is sketching her latest piece from a picture of her husband Bill on horseback in Colorado. She said she finds that horses have snuck into her paintings more often than not. She and Bill recently came back from their fourth trip riding in the Colorado hills at Deer Valley Ranch. On their 50th anniversary, Jean begged Bill to go on a cattle drive. He told her, “My boy scout days are over.”
Jean met Bill in high school in New York. According to Jean, Bill “wouldn’t give [her] a tumble! He wouldn’t even acknowledge that [she] existed.”
She played basketball in school and once Bill came to watch her.
“The one time Bill came to see me I got tripped up five times by that forward on the other team and I was flat on my face, I was so embarrassed,” she said.
Moving on from her embarrassing show on the basketball court, Jean graduated from high school. She attended a teachers’ college but ultimately decided to leave school, and began working in New York City for the McCall Corporation, a publishing company that printed popular magazines at the time. Here she created patterns for dresses for $12 a week and eventually left for a job at The Book of the Month Club, which was a mail-order business that paid $17 a week.
At 19, Jean saved enough money to go back to school and after a year at the University of Maryland, she decided she wanted to join the war effort and become a nurse in World War II. So, Jean returned to the Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn where she was born and completed a three-year nursing program. At the end of her training, a head nurse checked the beds all the nurses had made. When she got to Jean’s bed, she ripped it apart and exclaimed, “Ms. Ackerly, you will never be a good nurse!”
Jean made it her mission from that point on to be the valedictorian of the class, to show up that crotchety nurse. But to her dismay, Jean graduated as salutatorian. “I was crushed. I cried for half a day.”
During this time, Bill started to finally show interest in Jean, and when he came home from college they began to date.
“And he thought I was ready waiting for him,” she said. “But I played hard to get.”
Just before she enlisted in the army, Bill finally put a ring on her finger, and the couple celebrated a June wedding. After a week of honeymooning, Jean returned to Fort Jay on Governor’s Island in New York where she was stationed. The chief officer, who Jean described as an “old maid,” was envious of Jean’s recent marriage and assigned her to night duty that very day.
She didn’t see Bill for three weeks — he worked days as an engineer, she worked nights. Here she took care of wounded soldiers fresh off the boat from the European theater of war. Often times, they arrived in 50-ambulance convoys, the last few of which carted the quadruple amputees.
The morning Jean came off night duty, the chief officer asked her into her office. She handed Jean a paper. “These are your orders,” she said. “Be off the base by two o’ clock.”
The chief officer was sending Jean to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey where she would soon be shipped to Saipan. This was a nightmare. Jean had 24 hours to pack and rest before she left for New Jersey, where she was supposed to spend the next four months preparing to go to the Japanese theater of war.
But, “it was little Bill Jr. that kept me from that terrible war,” she said, and with her pregnancy, Jean was dismissed from her duty in Saipan in the nick of time.
Jean and her new family returned in the summers to the cottage on Lake Hortonia. She and Bill dreamed of moving to Vermont permanently and she spent weekends perusing the real estate sections of The Rutland Herald, which was mailed to her house in New York. There was a farmhouse in Hubberton Jean and Bill loved. They talked about buying it for two years. But old Saint John, he wasn’t about to sell, said Jean.
The best Jean could do was to capture the house in her first painting. She started to take adult education courses in 1971. On a large canvas, Jean painted a fall scene, the Hubbardton farmhouse and red barns standing out against a crisp blue sky — brushing the picture of a house she longed to own but never did.
After her father’s death, Jean and Bill bought the cottage on Hortonia Lake from her mother. She raised six children in the cottage. And though her childhood memories warmed its walls, Jean looks back on her time in the cottage with bittersweet memories.
Her six-year-old son Craig and his older brother were playing on a pile of logs down the street at a nearby sawmill. But the rain made the logs slippery, causing them to roll apart, catching Craig on their way down. The accident killed the little boy instantly.
After her son’s death, Jean decided to write a tract, 3 million copies of which the American Tract Society published, that spoke of her tragedy and how she overcame it.
“I just wanted to write something that others could read about who had lost little children and it might bring them a little peace,” said Jean.
In her retelling of her son’s death, Jean wrote: “‘A tragedy,’ they called it, when our six-year-old son was killed! I can still hear the screaming voice of his older brother, as he approached our camp. ‘Mother! Mother! Hurry! Craig’s hurt, he’s hurt bad!’ I ran faster and faster following the lad back to the sawmill, where I found Craig underneath a pile of logs. Being a nurse, I knew immediately that he was critically injured. I asked the country doctor, who had been summoned from the nearby camp, if we shouldn’t get him to the hospital. Standing up, and speaking with a slow Vermont accent he replied, ‘A hospital’s not going to do him any good; might better take him to a morgue.’ It was then that I realized as I knelt beside his broken, bleeding body, that Craig had ‘gone Home.’”
Her faith, said Jean, helped her get through the loss of her young son. “I just knew that everything was going to be alright, that he had gone home to Glory and that we would see him again some day.”
The Lake Hortonia cottage where so many joyful and painful memories had originated still remains in the family.
“Hopefully it will always stay in the Barnard family and never be sold,” said Jean. “It has precious memories.”
The picture of the cottage still hangs amongst countless other paintings in her home in New Haven. After 88 summers in Vermont (29 years as a resident), 65 years of marriage, six children, 23 operations including open-heart surgery, four spinal surgeries and two knee replacements, Jean has managed to churn out 86 paintings.
“I keep going and I just love life,” she said laughing.
Her paintings are mostly from photographs she has taken. She begins with a sketch and then fills the rest of the canvas with oil paint. Jean’s favorite thing about painting in her studio is the light.
“When I moved to this house, the first thing I had Bill do was to get a carpenter in and break through the window in his office and the window in my office because I wanted light,” said Jean.
The light in Jean’s studio is bright and streams in over a box of her grandfather’s paint open next to the easel. Her mother’s sketch of a woman in smart Paris fashion hangs close to her bed. In Jean’s newest painting, Bill is a faceless man riding alone on a faded pony — it’s a work in progress, Jean said, but she’ll get it done.