Born in Galatz, Romania, John Barber became a modernist painter of figures and scenes of daily life.
He emigrated from Romania with his family to the United States in 1908. His first art instruction came from his grandfather, and from 1909 to 1910, he studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City. However, he thought the teaching was too rigid and was much happier at the Ferrer Center School where he took lessons from Robert Henri. The social realism of Henri had much influence on Barber, and he became a part of Henri's circle devoted to depictions of urban life. By 1916, he was an illustrator for the radical magazine, The Masses.
In 1917, he was drafted and was briefly in France, where in 1920, after a brief return to New York, he took up residency with his friend, Jules Pascin and was much influenced by Cubism. He studied at Andre L'Hote's School Odessa and learned L'Hote's principles regarding shapes as distinct and animated in space. Barber focused on portrait and figure studies as geometric patterns spatially related. A trip to Italy caused him to be much impressed and influenced by early Renaissance painters Giotto and Piero della Francesco.
In 1927, he returned to the United States with Pascin and pursued geometric figure painting, and then spent several years in France and Portugal with intermittent returns to New York. The remainder of his life, he went back and forth from Europe to America, even during World War II, and earned an international reputation for his painting of daily life that included satirical scenes of industrial America.
In 1948, he married Dr. Margaret De Ronde, and they traveled extensively in Mexico, Europe, and throughout the United States. He died of leukemia on December 8, 1965.