“What are you doing this weekend?”
This familiar Friday-afternoon exchange has contributed to the heft of my “Places To Go” folder. One of the most intriguing additions has been the Barnes Foundation, a museum that displays its collection in unique “ensembles,” was the subject of a documentary called The Art of the Steal, and has a shop where you can curate your own collection of exclusive bronze and silver charms inspired by its decorative ironwork holdings. It moved to the top of the pile when my plans took me to Philadelphia.
Boarding the PHLASH for the short bus ride to Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street, I felt like a Fancy Brigade Mummer in Philadelphia’s traditional New Year’s Day parade, ready to break into Broadway-style song and dance because I was finally going to see this place. I wasn’t disappointed.
Enveloped by a series of gardens, pale gray stone walls, reflecting pools and plazas, the building is the new home of the collection of Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia medical doctor who made his fortune by developing and producing Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound that was used to prevent eye infections and blindness in newborns before antibiotics were available. Between 1912 and 1951, Barnes assembled one of the world’s most important holdings of post-impressionist and early modern paintings, with works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Maurice Prendergast and more.
I turned left down a crushed gravel path bordered by an allée of red maple trees and a narrow pool of still water. Just outside the building’s entrance, I stooped down to read a 1925 quote from Barnes etched along its border: “The most interesting thing in the world to me has always been a free, spontaneous expression of human nature, whether in a thought, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a statue, or an act of everyday life that shows the qualities of mind, heart and soul which, in my opinion, are the indispensables in any work of art.”
Crossing the threshold, I had the feeling that I had arrived at a very special, slow-paced place designed to encourage art appreciation. I turned left into the main lobby, walked straight ahead to a spacious, light-filled court, and entered the first of 23 rooms displaying items from the collection. My labyrinthine journey through this handsome building had begun.
Each gallery in the museum has white oak floors and golden burlap-covered walls, but there are no labels identifying the works on display. Barnes was so confident that people could appreciate art without having to rely on knowing the identity of the artist that he didn’t see a need for them.
As I moved slowly through these rooms, pausing often to appreciate my surroundings, it was obvious that Barnes loved art. He read voraciously, taking books by art historian Bernard Berenson and art critic Clive Bell with him to the Louvre and the National Gallery to try to learn about art, to determine what makes a good painting, and to understand why certain paintings appealed to him. He also sought the advice of his high school classmate, painter William Glackens, who encouraged Barnes’s appreciation of modern painting by taking him to galleries and buying paintings in Paris on his behalf. In later years, Barnes began collecting decorative and industrial arts, including Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, African and Native American art, Old Master paintings, and decorative ironwork.
Barnes shared his growing collection with his handful of employees, studying and discussing it with them for two hours each day. In 1922, he established a foundation to promote the appreciation of the fine arts. When his collection became too large to
maintain at his Merion, Pennsylvania home, he commissioned the building of a gallery next door.
Decades after Barnes’ death in 1951, a controversial legal battle ensued in which the foundation’s board of trustees sought to move the collection from Merion to Philadelphia. The new museum, which opened in 2012, maintains the original sequence of the rooms and the installation of the collection, precisely as it was in Merion. Today, the original museum is home to an arboretum that contains more than 2,500 species and varieties of trees and woody plants.
How Barnes’s collection is presented is as striking as what it contains. Relying on the artistic principles of light, line, color and space, Barnes combined paintings, metalwork, sculpture and decorative arts of different periods, cultures, styles and genres to reveal similar forms. To him, a door hinge was just as significant as a Picasso painting. He grouped them in symmetrical wall arrangements that he called “ensembles,” constantly rearranging them as he acquired new items until he got them just right. Barnes left no written explanations about his groupings, so there is no definitive answer to their meaning, but there are plenty of opportunities to discover the witty, clever and thoughtful ways he brought out the relationships between works of art. The ensembles on view today are those that were in place when Barnes died.
For example, on the south wall of Room 6, Barnes highlighted how the coral hues of a Paul Gaugin painting resonate with similar colors in the two Prendergast landscapes flanking it. The pink details and wavy lines of a Pennsylvania Dutch chest beneath the paintings, together with a gleaming pair of metal candlesticks and a teapot sitting on top of it, pick up the shimmery representation of painted waves. Door hinges at the top left and top right of the wall echo the curvaceous shapes of female figures in a nearby Renoir painting; the wide seats of 18th-century Windsor armchairs beneath them look like they were placed there to accommodate their voluptuousness.
Works by Renoir and Cezanne on the south wall of Room 8 are hung in V-shaped formations that mimic their pyramids of figures. The undulating carved waves on the front of a dresser and the rounded forms of pear-shaped candlestands and a redware pot below the paintings equal the curves of female figures depicted in the paintings. Their earthy red tones find the perfect complement in the similar hues of a painting by Renoir. On the south wall of Room 9, a painted 18th-century Pennsylvania Dutch chest decorated with tulips and a galloping horse is placed under Renoir’s Girl with a Jump Rope to contrast the vivid blue of the girl’s dress, together with a horse-shaped cookie cutter and tulip-shaped hinges on the opposite wall.
The Barnes Museum’s next-door neighbor is the Rodin Museum, an important collection of the work of Auguste Rodin collected by Jules Mastbaum of Philadelphia. The Meudon Gate, at the entrance to the museum, is a replica of the façade of a 17th-century chateau that Rodin reassembled on his property at Meudon, outside Paris. The structure includes bronze casts of Rodin’s Adam and The Shade; The Thinker stands before it, as it does at his gravesite. No admission is required to enjoy the museum’s garden, which includes casts of other Rodin sculptures, such as The Three Shades and The Burghers of Calais.
The Barnes Foundation partnered with the Columbus Museum of Art to produce Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, an exhibition exploring how World War I caused Pablo Picasso to reimagine Cubism and return to classicism. On view in Columbus through September 11, the exhibition includes four costumes Picasso designed for Parade, a revolutionary ballet featuring a story by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie and the choreography of Léonide Massine that was performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1917; snapshots of Picasso and his friends that Cocteau took on August 12, 1916 at a Parisian café; and works by Picasso and his contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Diego Rivera. Pablo Picasso: 25 Years of Edition Ceramics, is a complementary exhibition that is also on view.
Special Picasso-related events offered by the museum have included presentations on the history of the Great War, its fashion and how it led to the Jazz Age; dinner paired with anecdotes about Picasso; and more. “Picasso and the Classical, Again” is the title of a lecture about Picasso’s interest in Classical art that will be given on September 8 at 6:00 PM. For more on the exhibit, read Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, edited by Mariah Keller, with essays by Simonetta Fraquelli, Kenneth E. Silver, Elizabeth Cowling and Dominique H. Vasseur. A Day with Picasso, by Billy Klüver, presents the Cocteau photographs, along with a map of the locations. The exhibition was the subject of “The Influence of War on Art and Artists,” the June 6, 2016 edition of All Sides with Ann Fisher on WOSU-FM. Click here to listen to a recording of the program.
For more information about Albert Barnes and his foundation, read Barnes’s book, The Art in Painting; “How To Judge a Painting,” an article that Barnes wrote for the April 1915 issue of Arts and Decoration; “Profiles: De Medici in Merion,” an article by A.H. Shaw that was published in the September 22, 1928 issue of The New Yorker; Masterworks of the Barnes, by Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy; The Devil and Dr. Barnes: Portrait of An American Art Collector, by Howard Greenfeld; Art Held Hostage: The Story of the Barnes Collection, by John Anderson; The House of Barnes: The Man, The Collection, The Controversy, by Neil L. Rudenstine; The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary about the Barnes Foundation; and The Architecture of the Barnes Foundation: Gallery in a Garden, Garden in a Gallery, by Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Kenneth Frampton. To discover more about the ensembles and see what they look like, click here.