Controversy aside (yes, this was a court-sanctioned grab by the city of Philadelphia), the Barnes Foundation is one of the best places in the world to view impressionist and post-impressionist art. What makes it amazing is not just the sheer volume of art – it houses the world’s largest collection of Renoir (181) and Cezanne (69) – plus Matisse (59), Picasso (46), Modigliani (16), Seurat (6), Degas (11), Rousseau (18), and my personal favorite Van Gogh (7) – including his only painting that totally creeps me out:
It is also the way they are hung shoulder to shoulder, floor to ceiling, and intermixed with furniture, architectural fragments, iron work and sculpture, that make the collection unique.
Why all the extra stuff? Barnes actually created his galleries as a teaching space (The Barnes Foundation is not a museum. It’s officially an “educational institution”), part of his philanthropic mission to educate – believing that his form of art education would develop critical thinking skills and enable students (many from his own factory, who were required to attend seminars at the gallery), to become more productive members of democratic society. Part of his teaching method used “assemblages” to highlight his non-traditional ideas of art education: light, line, color, and space – no labels or biographical information allowed.
I never really got the whole concept until I noticed this chair positioned underneath the well-padded Renoir nude. It’s definitely a different way of looking at and thinking about art.
They also have a collection of paintings by Pennsylvania artist Horace Pippin (4), whose artwork Dr. Barnes was instrumental in promoting. Pippin was a member of the renowned Harlem Hell-fighters, the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War 1. Their bravery and ferocity on the battlefield led them to become the first Americans awarded the French Croix de Guerre – yet they returned home (injured in Pippin’s case) to face unemployment and discrimination.
Barnes made his fortune by co-developing an antiseptic used in fighting eye infections. Lucky for Barnes, he sold his company just before the stock market crash of 1929 and managed to hold onto his money, which he used to create this spectacular collection. Barnes began collecting with the help of his high-school friend and Philadelphia artist, William Glackens. Later, Barnes began traveling to Paris to purchase his own work. He was introduced to the art of Matisse through Gertrude and Leo Stein and purchased two of their own Matisse paintings.
He later developed a personal friendship with Matisse, who traveled to Philadelphia to create these pieces especially for Barnes’s gallery. Barnes considered them one of the highlights of his collection. Although he was an influential art collector, Barnes was definitely an outsider and maverick in the art world. He refused to open his collection to the public, preferred sharing his collection with his employees and other working class people, and actively shunned museum directors and wealthy collectors. He sent a letter, posing as his secretary, informing Walter Chrysler that he could not visit because Barnes “is not to be disturbed during his strenuous efforts to break the world’s record for gold-fish swallowing” (Wikipedia). Barnes’s will stated that the collection must not be opened to the public, remain hung exactly as it was upon his death, should never leave the premises, and that no photographs were to be taken. Eventually, all of these stipulations (except the one stating that the art must remain displayed exactly as is was when he died) were nullified in court and the collection was moved to its current home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012. For details, check out the movie, “The Art of the Steal.”
Note: Watch the lines around the perimeter of the rooms. You must stand inside the lines, with no body parts outside (so no loitering in the hallways between rooms). Museum staff take this rule VERY seriously.
Tip: the museum is free on the first Sunday of the month