Bo Bartlett's Amazing Grace

His first retrospective at the Columbus Museum in Georgia

Around 15 years ago, the kind of heroic realism practiced by painter Bo Bartlett was seen as a quixotic endeavor, relegated in art magazines to the last few pages of the reviews. Bartlett then was in his early thirties, and had his first solo show in New York at a time when abstraction, expressionism, and body art were filling the galleries. But today the rural Georgia native is one of dozens of figurative painters—among them Walton Ford, John Currin, and Julie Heffernan—whose grand-scale work is coveted by collectors. Each new show for these masters of narrative and allusion sells out weeks before it opens.

Bartlett distills unsettling moments to their essence on huge canvases. Take, for example, the nearly seven-by-ten-foot painting Assumption. A local woman had been posing for Bartlett at his summer island studio in Maine. One afternoon, when she and her son returned to the mainland, the tide was too low for them to climb up, so some lobstermen winched their punt right up to the dock. Bartlett couldn't believe his luck at having witnessed such a loaded tableau, and within four months painted this exquisitely balanced vision of self-consciousness, faith, and hope. Heartland, Bartlett's first retrospective, opens January 26 at the Columbus Museum, in Columbus, Georgia.