“Starving artist” is a cliché for a reason. It’s how most artists begin, and often end, their careers. But Barbara Ernst Prey has never been one to follow the crowd. She sold one of her first paintings—at age seventeen—to then-New York Gov. Hugh Carey. European nobility began collecting her work when she was barely out of her teens. “It was an auspicious start,” she concedes.Often mentioned in the same breath as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, though with a 21st century view, Prey’s work is on display everywhere from royal residences to foreign embassies. But she is, first and foremost, an American artist. In fact, Prey is a proud born-and-bred New Yorker. Her artist mother, who led the design department at the legendary Pratt Institute, practically raised her inside NYC’s museums. She also tagged along with her mother on plein air painting expeditions—the style Prey still prefers today. “She would go out East to paint,” Prey recalls, adding that she’s currently revisiting places where the two painted.
From the start, Prey’s career has been a whirlwind of country-hopping. She attended the illustrious Williams College (she also has a Master’s from Harvard) and completed an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prey then earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study and paint in Europe and, later, spent a year painting and exhibiting in Taiwan with a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. In between, she worked as the personal assistant to a Prince, joined Sotheby’s modern painting department, and contributed artwork to major publications like The New Yorker and the New York Times.
Today, Prey has fully reclaimed her New York roots. She keeps studios in Maine and Massachusetts (where she also serves as adjunct faculty at Williams College), but most of her time is spent in a light-filled Oyster Bay studio overlooking the water. It’s here she feels connected to the landscape that has always inspired her. “I grew up painting in my mother’s studio—on top of a hill surrounded by woods with a view of the water,” she says. “And now, I can look out my window, and there’s all this incredible material to paint.”
The kind of success Prey has experienced is incredibly rare. She understands that, which is why she uses her elevated profile to benefit environmental causes and children’s charities. Her latest project is a series of ten digital prints—including iconic Long Island scenes—issued in limited edition this holiday season in support of Save the Children and its global refugee relief work.
From her 9/11 series to Long Island marsh grasses, Prey’s work outs her as a native New Yorker. She’s proud to be a recipient of the New York State Senate Women of Distinction Award, a prize that puts her in company like Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt. She also received the Heckscher Museum Celebrate Achievement Award in recognition of her contribution to the arts.
She’s especially honored to represent New York in her appointment to the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Artists, including past members like John Steinbeck and Leonard Bernstein, are appointed for their accomplishments and distinguished service in the arts. The appointment is a tremendous honor, especially because Prey is the only visual artist on the board, and she takes the position seriously. “I’m astounded by the variety of art that we, as Americans, create,” she marvels. “I consider myself very fortunate to nominate National Medal of Arts Awardees and vote on grants for the arts in America.”
It’s fitting, then, that her paintings are often linked to iconic American institutions. Her art was featured on the 2003 White House Christmas card, earning her a rare spot in the White House permanent collection. NASA commissioned four works from Prey, an uncommonly large commission for the agency. Her paintings of the Columbia Tribute and International Space Station are on exhibit at Kennedy Space Center, and her painting of the x-43 was included in a 12 museum Smithsonian traveling exhibit, an experience she discussed on CBS Evening News.
Prey is also part of the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program. Her art has been exhibited in the Paris, Madrid, Prague, and Oslo embassies and is currently in Hong Kong. In addition, three of her paintings were requested by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for the UN Security Council’s December meeting.
This master American artist continues to bring her home-grown perspective to international exhibitions, too. Her Paris exhibit, curated by Sarah Cash of The National Gallery of Art, was so popular that Paris Capitale magazine concluded her watercolors were “not to be missed.”
No wonder Prey’s work is so hard to come by. When not on loan to international peacekeeping organizations and exhibitions, her paintings are snapped up by presidential libraries, museums, and celebrities. But Prey seems less impressed by who owns her work than by whom her work is surrounded by. “I do know they’re in great collections, hanging next to incredible painters,” she says. “I get to see that now as I visit some of my paintings.”
And then, as always, she’ll come home to Long Island.
For more information about Prey’s limited-edition prints to benefit Save the Children, visit www.barbaraprey.com or https://barbaraprey.com/shop/new-digital-prints.