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Barnes Foundation artist taught there for half a century

Harry Sefarbi, 92, of Powelton, a painter and teacher at the Barnes Foundation for more than 50 years, died Monday at Penn Rittenhouse Hospice.

Harry Sefarbi, 92, of Powelton, a painter and teacher at the Barnes Foundation for more than 50 years, died Monday at Penn Rittenhouse Hospice.

It was his 54th wedding anniversary and Yom Kippur - "a powerful day to die," said his wife, Ruth Fishman Sefarbi.

The couple met in Paris in the early 1950s. He was studying art, and she was studying French and literature. Eccentric art collector Albert C. Barnes had given Mr. Sefarbi an itinerary of things he should see and do in France.

In 1947, the artist had discovered Barnes' school and art gallery in Merion while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

"Every Tuesday," Ruth Sefarbi said, "Harry realized that students would disappear," and discovered they were going to hear lectures by Barnes' associate Violette de Mazia.

Mr. Sefarbi joined de Mazia's class. While the Barnes classes taught students about art, he later told his wife, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts taught technique.

Mr. Sefarbi eventually met Barnes, who bought a portrait that Mr. Sefarbi had painted and hung it in Room IX among the Renoirs and Rousseaus. "Pretty fast company," Mr. Sefarbi later told a Inquirer reporter.

While Mr. Sefarbi was in Paris in 1951, Barnes was killed in an automobile accident, and de Mazia took over the school. When Mr. Sefarbi returned to Pennsylvania in 1953, he asked de Mazia for a teaching job. He remained on the faculty until two years ago.

In recent years, he was an active opponent of the plan to move the Barnes art collection to Center City. In December 2003, he testified against the move, which required court approval because it would violate Barnes' will. He called the Barnes operation a "work of art" and said that if "any change" was made, it would "change everything."

"If you moved the Taj Mahal to the Parkway, would it still be the Taj Mahal?" he asked. Near the end of his testimony, he said, "It is a complete betrayal to do anything to these paintings in that setup."

The court eventually approved the move.

Mr. Sefarbi is featured in The Art of the Steal, a new documentary about the Barnes Foundation and the controversy surrounding its move.

Although Mr. Sefarbi stopped teaching two years ago, he painted until the end, his wife said.

His work is in many private and museum collections and has been exhibited in local galleries and museums, including the Newman & Saunders Galleries in Wayne and the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. His paintings were in the Senior Artists Initiative exhibit at Woodmere in August.

Mr. Sefarbi worked in oils on gesso-coated board surfaces. He was a great colorist, his wife said, adding that his paintings displayed a lot of humor and personality.

Victoria Donohoe, an Inquirer art critic, described a retrospective of Mr. Sefarbi's paintings at Woodmere in 1984: "He seems to be luxuriating in a sea of all-embracing color - hot pinks, yellows, mellow browns, mauves - and some iridescent effects. His flickering shapes - human figures, objects, motorcars - are softly patterned. This keeps in check any tendency to perceive space here in three dimensions."

When Woodmere exhibited 103 of Mr. Sefarbi's oils in 1991, Donohoe wrote that many were "beautiful works that have a positive formal vitality and do justice to his fine reputation as an artist."

A native of Chester, Mr. Sefarbi served in the Army in World War II and made maps at the Battle of the Bulge.

At the Barnes, he taught students whose parents had been in his class years earlier.

One woman told an Inquirer columnist in 2007 that she had taken Mr. Sefarbi's class three times because "each time Harry's different."

The columnist sat in on a class about Renoir. Mr. Sefarbi said people asked why Albert Barnes had bought 181 of the artist's works. "Well, because they're all different. Every 10 years Renoir is a different person," Sefarbi said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sefarbi is survived by a daughter, Mia; a brother; a sister; and a grandson.

A memorial service was held Thursday at the Bringhurst Funeral Home at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

Memorial donations may be made to the Violette de Mazia Foundation, 400 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, Pa. 19087.