Barnes Foundation Moves Art to Philadelphia
By Marina Cashdan
"It will feel extremely familiar," says Dolkart. "The experience of the gallery in Merion is intimate and has a domestic feel to it, and it will be the same in Philadelphia." When it came to his diverse collection, Barnes disregarded traditional methods of installation that typically grouped artworks by the artist or school, style or provenance. He called his arrangements "ensembles." "Barnes was someone who didn't believe in the hierarchy of the arts," Dolkart says. "He really flouted those conventions and installed the fine arts, the decorative arts, and the industrial arts side by side in his gallery. One of the really particular elements of this collection is its diversity and the way it's arranged. You might have Italian Old Master paintings hung on either side of a work by Renoir. Or you might have Cézanne paintings on either side of a work by El Greco—and just beneath that, you might have a Pennsylvania German ceramic," says Dolkart.
While there were many other collectors of the time accumulating impressive collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art—such as the Ryersons, the Palmers, and Annie Coburn of Chicago, and the Havemeyers of New York—Barnes's collection is particularly unique. "The sheer volume and variety within the Barnes Collection is special," says Robert Cozzolino, curator of modern art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "However, I think its identity should not be understood as a strict Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection but as an experience. Walking through the collection reminds you that Barnes doesn't seem to have thought in terms of a collection of ‘masterpieces,' but in terms of internal relationships, how objects reveal the thought processes of artists, and how the visual is a kind of language. Of course, there are works in the collection that represent the highest achievements of the artists represented—but there are also sketches, false starts, unexpected turns [as in a great understated Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rosa la Rouge], and many lesser-known artists."
Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), by Henri Matisse.
For those artists of whom he was most fond, Barnes was interested in the evolution of their practice, and so the breadth of the oeuvre can often be seen within the collection. For example, Barnes was particularly interested in the late works of Renoir, but there are also important works from the 1870s and 1880s. Ann Dumas, a curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, says: "Although he was advised by the American artist William Glackens and others, the collection strongly demonstrates Barnes's own taste, and it's extraordinary because nearly all of the major artists of the modern period—Degas, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse—are wonderfully represented. The collection covers a range of periods and cultures, showing the broad ranges of Dr. Barnes's interests."
This unique approach to collecting ultimately made Barnes a visionary, someone whose tastes and methods would influence a generation of successive collectors. Kimberly Jones, associate curator of the department of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, explains: "He was very much in tune with, and slightly ahead of, the game in terms of what other important collectors of modern art were acquiring. When you look at what was happening with American collectors in the years leading up to and after World War I, the artists that Barnes had already acquired in 1912 are the artists that a whole generation of very powerful and influential collectors would begin collecting in the 1920s. So the collection he formed was very important historically because it was a litmus test of what modern art collecting would become and really shaped what we find in American museums across the country today."
In 1915, Barnes published the article "How to Judge a Painting," outlining a "scientific" method of evaluating art and explaining how he had come to understand painting and how it can change one's point of view. This was the start of a prolific series of writings on art and educational theory, which remains one of the most radical texts on the subject. These served as the touchstone for his foundation, which functioned as a school more so than a public gallery. His educational program was influenced significantly by friend and philosopher John Dewey's work in logic, scientific inquiry, and philosophy of education. Until his death in 1951, Barnes penned numerous articles, exhibition pamphlets, and a total of six books; his first, in 1925, titled The Art in Painting, advanced his principles for approaching art beyond an academic perception. He later coauthored with Violettee de Mazia—a former Barnes student and professor who subsequently became the director of education at the foundation in 1950—books devoted to the art of Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, in addition to their first collaboration, The French Primitives and Their Forms from Their Origin to the End of the Fifteenth Century.
Barnes's thoughtful, thorough, and democratic approach to collecting is reflected in his treatment of education on a cross-disciplinary platform. Glenn Holsten, coproducer of The Barnes Collection, a 60-minute documentary airing August 3 on WHYY-TV as part of the PBS Arts Summer Festival series, talks of learning about "Dr. Barnes, the character." "The Dr. Barnes that I became very attracted to is the seeker and the searcher, someone who would wrestle with his paintings and try to have them speak to him and understand what they were saying," he describes. "I learned that in his fine art classes, he would play music—both classical and gospel— to make connections between those art forms."
The foundation's inaugural special exhibition, Ensemble: Albert C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education, will "examine how Barnes embarked on his educational theory, how he collected, why he established the foundation, and how he installed the collection, the education programs, and his writing," says Dolkart. In addition to developing an innovative website on which the collection will be rolled out virtually, the foundation is also ramping up its print presence, setting up what Dolkart calls a "robust publishing program." It will start with a booklet on the masterworks of the collection, released in time for the opening and featuring 150 to 160 objects ("not just paintings but African art, metal work, ceramics, furniture, and not just French but Native American, American, African, Asian"), as well as a book focusing on the 181 works by Renoir. The foundation also plans to publish two books on the building's design. Meanwhile the Merion campus will continue to host the horticulture program, the library, and the greenhouse, as well as the institutional archives, including a collection of Barnes's letters and writings.
Jones remembers going to Merion to see the collection for the first time as an undergraduate student. "I was just blown away by room after room of amazing paintings. The Matisses, the Picassos, the 181 Renoirs, the Cézannes—it was overwhelming how much great art there was," he recalls. "And it was a wonderful privilege. But I think people should be able to come back again and again to revisit these works.
"I was very lucky over the years, as an art historian, to go multiple times, but not everyone could do that [in the Merion space]," he continues. "When it's more centrally located, people will have the opportunity to revisit, rethink, and explore the collection in the depth that you really couldn't get when access was so limited."
Anabelle Kienle, assistant curator of European and American art at the National Gallery of Canada, remembers her experience in equally fond terms: "I felt as if I had entered an art history textbook. The breadth of masterworks was overwhelming, and the eccentric display was so surprising and that each room was full of discoveries—especially since these works are not allowed to travel. You had to go to Merion to see them."
The addition of the Barnes Foundation to central Philadelphia has led to an exciting program of cultural partnerships centered around the parkway, including With Art Philadelphia, a two-year marketing campaign among various city organizations and cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Penn Museum, and the Philadelphia Convention Center, to support Philadelphia's visual arts scene.
"I hope that the move to the city will make the corridor leading from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts down the parkway and ending at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts a vital and unified museum route, that the institutions will collaborate and work together to support one another intellectually and eventually benefit from citywide joint marketing of Philadelphia's art scene and all of its museums, well-known and hidden," says Cozzolino. "The Barnes Foundation is legendary, and its reputation was always high because of the collection, the unique manner in which it was displayed, and because of the biography of Barnes. People were intrigued and wanted to visit. If this makes it more accessible and better-known to a wider public, that would be great."
Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, concurs. "Along with Philadelphia becoming the center for modern, Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist art, it's important historically because Barnes was a proponent of African art and antiquities. And his credo, so to speak, that ‘art should be for everybody' and ‘it's never too late to learn about art and bring it into your life,' was very democratic. He didn't see it as just for the elite. He felt that everyone could enjoy the process of art." This move is, perhaps, what Barnes would have wanted most—it is, after all, education for the masses and accessibility for all those who want to view art, all while remaining within the Barnesian parameters.
Barnes once said, "Living with and studying good paintings offers greater interest, variety, and satisfaction than any other pleasure known to man." This year the pleasure will be all ours. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., 215-640-0171
Photography by andrew kahl; courtesy of the barnes foundation; courtesy of barnes foundation archives