Barr, Margaret Scolari (1901–1987)

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Barr, Margaret Scolari (1901–1987)

Italian-born American art historian and teacher. Born Margaret Scolari in 1901 in Rome; died in New York City on December 30, 1987; daughter of Virgilio Scolari (an antiques dealer) and Mary Fitzmaurice Scolari; studied at the University of Rome, 1919–22; married Alfred Barr, in 1930; children: daughter, Victoria (also a painter).

Came to the United States (1925); taught at Vassar College (1925–29); collaborated with husband,the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (1930–81); active with the Emergency Rescue Committee during World War II; taught art history at the Spence School (1943–80).

Margaret Scolari Barr was a distinguished art historian who played a significant role in saving the lives of endangered artists in Nazi-occupied Europe in the early 1940s. She was born in Rome in 1901, the daughter of Virgilio Scolari, an Italian antiques dealer, and Mary Fitzmaurice, known as an ebullient Irishwoman. Educated at the University of Rome, she came to the United States in 1925, where she received a master's degree in art history at Vassar College, a university at which she also taught. In September 1929, she moved to New York City and was present at the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art.

At the museum's opening, she met the young, enthusiastic Alfred Barr, who was the new institution's director. Instantly drawn to each other, they married in Paris in 1930. A day after the wedding, too busy with his work to take time off for a honeymoon, Barr began scouring Paris for paintings for a forthcoming exhibition of the works of Corot and Daumier. Because of Margaret Scolari Barr's linguistic skills and mastery of the history of Western art, she found herself "drafted" to act as his translator, secretary, and indispensable associate. They worked in this fashion throughout the 1930s as they traveled to Europe virtually every summer to beg and borrow paintings for the following year's exhibitions.

Intensely aware of the destructive nature of Nazism and Fascism, Margaret Barr was actively involved in the work of the Emergency Rescue Committee, operating in France in 1940 and 1941, which brought to the United States a number of artists whose lives were threatened for racial or political reasons in Nazi-occupied Europe. These included Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, Yves Tanguy, and André Masson. Europe's loss was America's gain, and the New York art scene was greatly enriched and stimulated through the presence of these and other European emigrés throughout the 1940s. In 1943, with travel to Europe impossible, Barr began teaching at New York's Spence School, a position she would hold until her retirement in 1980. She was known for her ability to connect students to the beauty and power of art. In her introductory art lecture at Spence, she once ended with: "Now plan to enjoy yourselves. As Poussin, the great French painter of the 17th century, remarked, 'Le fin de l'art est la délectation' (The goal of art is delight)." As Michael Brenson noted in his New York Times obituary after her death in New York on December 30, 1987, "The diversity of Mrs. Barr's talents and the force of her personality made her a presence in the New York art world for half a century."


Barr, Margaret Scolari. "Our Campaigns," in The New Criterion. Summer, 1987.

Brenson, Michael. "Margaret Scolari Barr, a Teacher and Art Historian, Is Dead at 86," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1987, p. 1394.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia