Barnes was born in Islington, Middlesex, the eldest son of John William Barnes (1854–1909), a builder and plasterer, and his wife Ann Eliza Barnes, née May ( –1956). Around 1890 the family migrated to Adelaide, where his father and William Neate (1848–1932) set up in business in Flinders Street as Barnes & Neate, modellers and plasterers. They specialised in fibrous plaster and pressed cement, and their work is evident in the Steamship building, the Art Gallery and Savings Bank, to name a few.
On leaving school Gustave Barnes had some training in modelling from his father, and was a fine musician, having studied violin under A. C. Quin, leader of the Adelaide Grand Orchestra. He studied painting under James Ashton and was from 1896 a member of the Adelaide Easel Club. In 1900 Gustave travelled to Europe to continue his study of the violin, and painting under Professor Herkomer.
Barnes obtained employment at the Doulton pottery works as a designer, painter and modeller, and during his evenings studied at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington. In 1908 he exhibited a water-colour, 'Suffolk Marshes', at the Royal Academy of Arts. He also played violin in Sir Edward Elgar's second orchestra. His father died in 1909 and Barnes returned to Adelaide to carry on his business.
Barnes did a great deal of landscape painting, much on rambles in the Adelaide Hills with Hans Heysen, and was very interested in black and white work. In 1915 he was appointed art supervisor at the Art Gallery of South Australia and served classifying and cataloguing prints and drawings until 1918, when he was appointed curator. He regularly exhibited rural landscapes with the South Australian Society of Arts. The gallery bought 'Monarch of the Glen', 'Morning in the Hills' and 'Mount Barker from Crafers'. He also played violin in Hermann Heinicke's ensemble. He proved himself to be conscientious and able, and his early death on 14 March 1921 was much regretted.
He took up painting at a relatively late age, and some of his work suggests that had he lived longer he might have reached a higher position in Australian art than is usually given him. Landscapes in oil were probably his forté, but he was also a designer, a modeller in clay and an etcher, and was equally successful in all these branches of art. In his modest way he exerted a quiet but powerful influence on the development of local art, as exemplified by his lectures on the subject. He was a musician of considerable skill and an enthusiast for great literature; he was singularly well informed on a wide range of subjects.
Barnes married Annie May while in England in 1909 and his wife and two children survived him; they lived at West Terrace, Kensington Gardens.
Painter L. J. Barnes of Sydney, and Doris Barnes, eminent photographer of Adelaide, were his brother and sister.
The Art Gallery of South Australia holds a number of his paintings:
- Colonel Light's residence at Thebarton, S.A.
- Frenchman's Rock, Kangaroo Island
- Hans Heysen painting at King's Sound
- Mount Barker from Crafers
- The Monarch of the Glen
- The Quarry
- View of Adelaide from the Reed Beds
- Morning in the Hills
and the State Library has an early watercolor:
He built a large scale model illustrating the Gallipoli campaign which was displayed at the Library, and a relief map, which went to the Department of Defence's war museum.
- Nancy Benko, 'Barnes, Gustave Adrian (1877 - 1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, MUP, 1979, pp 179–180.
- "Personal". The Register (Adelaide). XCIII, (27,157). South Australia. 29 August 1928. p. 8. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Entertainments". Adelaide Observer. LVII, (3,067). South Australia. 14 July 1900. p. 25. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Advertising". The Advertiser (Adelaide). LII, (15,962). South Australia. 14 December 1909. p. 2. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Gustave Barnes". The Sydney Morning Herald (26,104). New South Wales, Australia. 3 September 1921. p. 7. Retrieved 8 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "National Gallery Curator". Adelaide Observer. LXXVIII, (5851). South Australia. 19 March 1921. p. 31. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Year's Motor Tour of Australia". The Register News-Pictorial. XCV, (27,633). South Australia. 10 March 1930. p. 26. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "New Pictures". Daily Herald. 5, (1456). South Australia. 21 November 1914. p. 4. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Personal". Daily Herald. XII, (3432). South Australia. 19 March 1921. p. 4. Retrieved 7 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Gustave Adrian Barnes". Carrick Hill. Retrieved 7 May 2016.