The first of The Barnes Foundation’s works moved from the old Merion location to the Parkway was also its largest: the site-specific Matisse mural The Dance. In 1932, at Dr. Barnes’s request, Henri Matisse designed the three-canvas piece to nestle above three windows in three arched spaces that reached to a vaulted ceiling in the doctor’s galleries. The canvasses are more than 12 feet high and stretch about 48 feet if placed side by side. “We spent over a year planning this entire move for all the works in the collection,” says Barnes Foundation chief curator Judith Dolkart. “And moving The Dance was a project within the project.”
In 1933 Matisse traveled to Merion to personally install the mural. Once finished, he wrote to his son Pierre that The Dance seemed so fitting in situ that the work “became part of the building.” (Interestingly, while it is well known that Matisse’s technique was to shift paper cutouts about as he arranged his composition, Dolkart says that during the move, it was still a thrill to see the hundreds of pinpricks he had made as he refined the masterpiece in its original location.) Fast-forward nearly 80 years, and moving the “immovable” work, as Matisse once characterized it, required not just the foundation’s curator and the architects and construction firm for the new galleries, but also 11 art handlers, two painting conservators, and an assistant; one registrar, to oversee packing and transport; extensive security support; a team of photographers and videographers to document the de- and re-installations; and the foundation’s entire buildings and facilities teams.
Matisse wrote in a 1934 letter that “[a]rchitectural painting depends absolutely on the place that has to receive it, and which it animates with a new life.” For decades many found this true of The Dance. But the reverse may very well be true in its new home, Dolkart explains. “Matisse had intended the blue of his mural to stand for the sky, against the greenery of the Merion arboretum. But for the most part, the windows’ shades and draperies had to be closed to protect the paintings inside.” Now, however, “on the parkway, because we have high-tech glass, we won’t have to close the shades. So we will have that connection to the greenery once again.”