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A Visit to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

The Entrance to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA

The Entrance to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA

On a recent blustery, cold, and snow-showery day, my husband and I had a chance to visit the Barnes Foundation in its new location in Philadelphia. Located near the Franklin Institute, the building is just a stone’s throw away from the newly renovated Rodin Museum, and a short walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Due to the small size and popularity of the Barnes Foundation, visitors are encouraged to schedule their visit in advance. We spent five hours in the galleries, and I wish I could have stayed even longer.

The new building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, is a work of art in its own right. We were enthralled. The materials are elegant. Every detail is refined and understated. Immediately as you enter, masonry walls with textured surfaces that appear to be hand-hewn catch your eye. The stairs are subtly cantilevered, with the handrails turned just so. From the suite of entrance rooms, you cross a large, light-filled, covered court, which leads past an expansive special exhibition space to the galleries housing the Barnes Collection.

And what an amazing collection it is! Dr. Albert Barnes derived great satisfaction from collecting particular artists in amazing depth. Between 1912 and 1951 he acquired 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and 18 Henri Rousseaus, along with multiple Modiglianis and plentiful Prendergasts, too! While the best known and most numerous are the Impressionist, Post Impressionist, and early modern works (the great majority of them figurative), he also collected African and Asian art, some medieval pieces, American and European furniture, and pre-Columbian works.

Twenty-three art-packed rooms on two floors replicate both the gallery configuration and the actual arrangement of the art as it had been conceived and developed by Dr. Barnes for the original museum in Merion, Pennsylvania. A Barnes-commissioned mural of The Dance by Matisse fills the upper story of the first gallery just as it had in Merion, and another Matisse, The Joy of Life, occupies a place of honor in an adjacent space upstairs.

Dr. Barnes developed a very personal way of displaying his collection based on his study of how people experienced art. His method was to hang specific works together in symmetrical arrangements that he called “ensembles.” But these are not your typical chronological or geographical groupings. The arrangements include decorative arts, furniture, and lots of fancifully-shaped metalwork (such as decorative hinges and handles) which are hung on the walls along with a great variety of paintings. Each ensemble is united by a particular theme such as color, line, space, or light. These groupings invite you to see connections across various artists, mediums, cultures, and periods.

In one memorable ensemble, a colorful, rounded ceramic vase by Jean Renoir seems to converse with his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s late painting of voluptuous bathers. Incidentally, there are no wall labels at all to disrupt the ensembles, but every gallery has printed directories with each ensemble mapped out, and there is a free acoustical guide that I found very worthwhile.

As a Bostonian, I noticed a resemblance to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. Like Mrs. Gardner, Dr. Barnes stipulated that nothing in the collection could be moved or changed, to protect his legacy. A lot of debate followed the decision to move the collection from Merion to Philadelphia, but the new campus permits much greater access for a broad spectrum of visitors (the city bus stops right in front), and Dr. Barnes’ ingenious presentation of his world-class collection is preserved and enhanced. I can’t wait for my next visit!

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