Barkley L. Hendricks, a painter who gave new representation to ordinary black men and women, memorializing them in portraits that echoed the grand manner of the old masters, died on Tuesday in New London, Conn. He was 72.
His wife, Susan, said that the cause was a cerebral hemorrhage.
While touring Europe as an undergraduate art student in the mid-1960s, Mr. Hendricks fell in love with the portrait style of artists like van Dyck and Velázquez. His immersion in the Western canon, however, left him troubled. In his visits to the museums and churches of Britain, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, he saw virtually no black subjects. His own race was, in effect, a void in Western art.
As the Black Power movement unfolded around him, he set about correcting the balance, in life-size portraits of friends, relatives and strangers encountered on the street that communicated a new assertiveness and pride among black Americans.
“Lawdy Mama,” one of his first portraits, showed a young woman with an enormous Afro looking impassively at the viewer. Although her dress was modern, the arched top of the canvas and background in gold leaf suggested a Byzantine icon.
Throughout the 1970s Mr. Hendricks produced a series of portraits of young black men, usually placed against monochromatic backdrops, that captured their self-assurance and confident sense of style. The subject of “Steve” (1976) stood nonchalantly, his hands in the pockets of his belted white trench coat, looking into the distance through a pair of sunglasses, the blackness of his skin and his shoes a stark contrast to the dazzling white background.
“As an added note of audacity, he paints into the reflections of the mirrored sunglasses the figure is wearing two little cityscapes and what may be a miniature self-portrait of the artist himself at work,” the critic Hilton Kramer wrote of the painting in The New York Times. “It is all quite stunning.”
Mr. Hendricks often used himself as a subject. In “Icon for My Man Superman” (1969), he appeared, arms crossed, wearing a Superman jersey and sunglasses, naked from the waist down. The painting’s subtitle, “Superman Never Saved Any Black People,” echoed a remark by Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party.
In his sardonic 1977 painting “Brilliantly Endowed (Self Portrait)” — its title borrowed from Mr. Kramer’s review — he stood naked except for a pair of drooping striped tube socks and a floppy white cap perched on his head. A toothpick at the corner of his mouth, balanced at a jaunty angle, accentuated the relaxed so-what? attitude of the pose.
Mr. Hendricks resisted classification as a political painter, or as a black painter for that matter. The subject of “Lawdy Mama,” he liked to point out, was not a militant, despite the Angela Davis Afro, but a second cousin.
“My paintings were about people that were part of my life,” he told the art newspaper The Brooklyn Rail in 2016. “If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture we were drowning in.”
Barkley Leonnard Hendricks was born on April 16, 1945, in Philadelphia. His father, also named Barkley, was a construction worker turned contractor, and his mother, the former Ruby Powell, was a homemaker who later worked as a teacher’s aide.
After graduating from Simon Gratz High School in 1963, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with the black landscape painter Louis Sloan, earning a certificate in 1967.
With the military draft looming, he enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard and found work as an arts and crafts teacher with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. In 1970 he enrolled in Yale’s school of art, where he was able to complete both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art in two years. Immediately after graduating, he joined the art department at Connecticut College in New London, where he taught until 2010.
At a time when minimalism, abstraction and conceptual art ruled the day, Mr. Hendricks’s work was profoundly out of fashion. “I didn’t care what was being done by other artists or what was happening around me,” he told The Brooklyn Rail. “I was dealing with what I wanted to do. Period.”
He gravitated toward photography and studied for a year under Walker Evans, for whom he produced a portfolio of photographs taken at the Port Authority bus station in Manhattan, as he shuttled back and forth between New Haven and his National Guard post in New Jersey.
Mr. Hendricks remained, throughout his career, a somewhat neglected figure. His 1970 self-portrait “Brown Sugar Vine” was included in “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” a large exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1971. But it was not until 2008, when Trevor Schoonmaker organized the traveling retrospective “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, that he began receiving his due. The exhibition, with more than 50 paintings dating to 1964, was seen in New York at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He began showing at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan in 2009.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Hendricks began painting landscapes on annual trips to Jamaica. It was at this time that he married Susan Weig. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his mother; a sister, Arlene Hendricks; and two brothers, Andre and Methun. His younger brother Dwight was murdered in Philadelphia in 1999.
Mr. Hendricks returned to portraits in 2002 with “Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen,” a tribute to the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whom he depicted as a secular saint, resplendent in gold with a halo over his head, holding a microphone in one hand and his crotch in the other. In front of the painting, Mr. Hendricks placed 27 pairs of high-heeled shoes, a reference to the women in Fela’s life.
Some of his most striking portraits followed, notably “Photo Bloke” (2016), depicting a black man in a shocking pink suit and white tennis shoes, posing against a solid pink background; another, the timely “Roscoe” (2016), shows a young black man wearing a T-shirt that makes a profane statement against Fox News.
Mr. Hendricks’s work forms part of the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which opens at the Tate Modern in London in July. Speaking to the museum’s curators last year, he said, “I’m just trying to do the best painting of the individuals who have piqued my curiosity and made me want to paint them.”