Jewel of Pennsylvania

As the Barnes Foundation gears up for its 2012 move from Merion Township to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, I remember a trip I took there a few years ago: a last chance to view the collection in its original location.

It’s an art collector’s dream come true – all those rooms, all those walls, all that space for antique chests, teapots, wrought-iron bric-a-brac. Of course what Albert C. Barnes – doctor, scientist and businessman – had going for him was prescient taste and the funds to acquire the work of Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, Modigliani et al when those names were not quite household words.

Today, the Barnes Foundation houses one of the world’s richest collections of art: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, Chinese painting, African sculpture, retablos from New Mexico, Navajo rugs, American decorative arts and Etruscan artifacts. The adjoining arboretum includes a 10,000-specimen herbarium and greenhouse.

Born in a working class Philadelphia neighborhood in 1872, Dr. Barnes and a partner developed the antiseptic silver compound Argyrol and made a sizeable fortune. He was always interested in art – he attributed this to his first encounters with African-American spiritual music at revival meetings he attended with his Methodist mother. With his compassion for working people, Dr. Barnes brought newly acquired paintings into his factories to share with the workers. Inspired by the pedagogy of John Dewey, he led hour-long educational discussions every day, not only about art but about the poetry of George Santayana.

When the good doctor started the Barnes Foundation in 1922, Mr. Dewey became its first director. A 13-acre arboretum in Merion, Pa., was acquired to house the collection and hold classes for artists and teachers and the general public, and in 1940, Laura Barnes established the Arboretum School for the study of horticulture, botany and landscape design. Today, visitors to the Barnes Foundation can see the collection of rare and mature plants including more than 200 varieties of lilacs.

“The mission of the Barnes Foundation is to promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts,” wrote Dr. Barnes, and “to maintain an art gallery of works of ancient and modern art, in connection with an arboretum… for the study of arboriculture and forestry.”

The gallery and attached residence – now an administration building – were designed by Paul Philippe Cret, architect of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. The building was specifically created to house the collection, and Dr. Barnes spent the rest of his life arranging “wall ensembles” to display the collection. Some consider the wall ensembles, illustrating his concepts on how to see as an artist does, Dr. Barnes’ artistic contribution.

About five years ago, the Barnes Foundation board of directors received approval – following a contentious two-year legal battle – to move the collection to a site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just across from the Franklin Institute. It is hoped that a Center City location will help generate more revenue to build an endowment. The move will probably take place in 2012, so viewers still have time to see the collection and arboretum as Dr. Barnes envisioned it.

The Barnes Foundation board makes it clear that this is not a museum, but a collection for educational purposes that is open to the public. Reservations must be made weeks in advance for limited viewing hours Friday through Sunday. Up to 400 visitors are admitted each day.

During a recent visit, I am asked to relinquish not only my handbag but the very pen I had expected to make notes with. “For security reasons,” explains Henry Butler, marketing director, finding a pencil for me to use. Had I brought a camera, that too would have to be checked in a locker by the coat room.

Mr. Butler compares the foundation to a time capsule. Pointing to a display case of American Indian pottery and jewelry, he says that even when a pot is removed for repair, nothing will be substituted in its place.

We enter the main gallery, with its cathedral ceiling. Some have described entering this space as a religious experience. “There are more famous paintings in this room than anywhere else in the country,” says Mr. Butler. There are works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Soutine, Cézanne, Rousseau, Prendergast and others.

There are no plaques describing the work, just a brass plate within the frame naming the artist. For the title, viewers must look at an information sheet in plastic laminate tucked into pockets of the benches in each room. Only the basic information – title, artist, date of birth and death, painting date and medium – is given. “Dr. Barnes believed if you wanted to know more, you could read about it at home,” says Mr. Butler. “He didn’t think the name of the work was important – he wanted people to have a free and open mind, to think and see while viewing.”

Looking up, we see the famous Matisse mural of dancers in the three arched niches over the windows. A friend of Dr. Barnes, Matisse came to the Barnes to sketch this mural, later painted in France, on canvas over wood frames in three sections. “The Dancers” has a twin in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.

“Many of these artists were Dr. Barnes’ contemporaries, and he helped get their careers started,” says Mr. Butler. “In some cases, Dr. Barnes was the first American to buy (works by) these artists.”

The rooms are arranged not by artist or period, but by visual themes as perceived by Dr. Barnes. He collected a vast amount of European and American metal works – door knockers, latches, key holes, hinges, et al – that he used to fill in the spaces between paintings. “These are done to accentuate the paintings,” says Mr. Butler, pointing to a large knocker over Cézanne’s “The Large Bathers.” Renoir’s “Reclining Nude” is flanked by upside-down hinges that mimic the shape of the body. “You can come numerous times and see something different each time,” he says. “The eye can’t take it all in at one time.”

Benches, metal candlesticks, urns, Pennsylvania Dutch wedding chests and textiles further accent the rooms, reflecting colors of the paintings. “Even if you were only interested in Pennsylvania Dutch chests, we have a fabulous collection,” says Mr. Butler. There also is an extensive collection of pottery by filmmaker Jean Renoir, son of Pierre Auguste, the painter. There are 180 Renoir paintings in the collection, and almost as many Matisses and Cézannes.

Under a Gaugin is a 1763 chest with a silver teapot, the spout of which mimics the shape of a branch that is reflected in the water in the painting, Mr. Butler points out. “(Dr. Barnes) may have been a practical joker,” quips Mr. Butler. “His secretary described him as a cross between Albert Einstein and Groucho Marx.” Flanking a Renoir in which two full-bodied nudes are depicted are two very wide chairs.

Works in the collection are not permitted to travel or be on loan, but during a period of renovation in the ’90s, a group of 80 pieces toured.

Stressing the educational mission of the Foundation, Mr. Butler says this is one of the few places where students can study with original works of art. They pay $1,000/year for 28 weeks of two-hour classes.

As we walk through the galleries, we encounter a group of students, many of whom appear to be retirees. Two instructors on staff studied under Dr. Barnes, who died in 1951 in an automobile accident while in his 70s. Harry Sefarbi was a student of Dr. Barnes in 1946 and has taught here since 1953. He recalls when most of the students were artists and classes were free.

Mr. Sefarbi, who is carrying on Dr. Barnes’ mission of teaching students how to see, explains how the “‘American Room’ illustrates the variety of adopted influences that make up the American tradition, such as the influence of Matisse on Glackens, Fauvism on Maurer, Post-Impressionism on Prendergast.”

In another room, containing paintings by Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and others, the theme is the elbow, pictured in three-quarters of the works.

Other artists of note include the Ashcan School artist William Glackens, a high-school classmate of Dr. Barnes and a good friend with whom Dr. Barnes entrusted a sum of money for acquiring artwork while on his honeymoon to Paris; Horace Pippin; Redon; Marsden Hartley; Utrillo; and Demuth.

The existing gallery will become a study center and classrooms for the arboretum.    “(Dr. Barnes) wanted people of all walks of life to see and appreciate art,” says Mr. Butler. “He believed it would help people in their daily lives and creative thought processes.”

The Barnes Foundation, 300 North Latch’s Lane, Merion, Pa. welcomes visitors Fri.-Sun., 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept.-June and Wed.-Fri., 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., July-Aug. Reservations must be made 30 days in advance. Admission costs $10, on-site parking $10. Audio tours $7. For information and to make reservations, call (610) 667-0290.

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3 Responses to Jewel of Pennsylvania

  1. Haven’t seen this collection before but after reading this I want to. Interesting how Dr. Barnes seemed to have gift of looking into the future by buying works of art from these artists before they were widely embraced. Also interesting how he arranged these by the way the artists saw things.

  2. A.C.B. says:

    There is much that is accurate in this report, but some is not. (I am a former student and teacher at Barnes, and am one of those people who has been actively opposed to removing the art from Merion.) The innacuracies that I noticed are:

    1. Dr. Barnes not only had “prescient taste” he had a powerful intellect, and it was that which informed his choice of art and his ideas about education.
    2. It was John Dewey who encouraged Barnes to start a school in order to put their ideas into practice, and the Foundation functioned as a school for art and horticulture, and nothing else.
    3. I don’t know of anyone educated in the ideas of Barnes and Dewey who regards the ensembles as Barnes’ “artistic contribution.” They are just a part of his profound contribution to education in art, and just one way of seeing the paintings–which for seventy years were moved for the purposes of instructing the students, until the administration put an end to this practice in the 1990s.
    4. Reservation are sometimes needed “weeks in advance” but more often they are not needed far ahead. They often can be obtained less than a week before a visit and sometimes a day ahead.
    5. I don’t know Mr. Butler, but he is not a reliable source of information about the art. To wit:

    a. What evidence is there that “There are more famous paintings in this room….” ? None.
    b. Barnes never said anything about reading “more at home”. Nevertheless Mr. Butler is right that Barnes wanted the viewer to think for her/himself in the absence of labels. So, one must ask why the Barnes Foundation offers headsets that tell you what you are seeing?
    c. Barnes and Matisse were not friends. As far as I know they met only twice: when Matisse first visited and was hired to produce the mural, and after the mural was installed.
    d. In 2002 the trustees of the Barnes Foundation asked for permission to loan the paintings, and this was granted in 2004.
    e. There are many places where students can study original works of art, but it is only at the Barnes Foundation that the emphasis is on the qualities expressed through the painting itself, and NOT on the qualities expressed through or by the artist or his/her character, or someone analyzing said artist.

    6. Sadly, Mr. Sefarbi died in September 2009.

  3. Pingback: The Artful Blogger! » Last Chance in Merion

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