Type to search

The Rebirth of the Barnes


Throughout his life Dr. Albert Barnes was called a lot of things: cranky, controlling, and intellectually curious, to name a few. But primarily he was celebrated as an audacious art collector over a 40-year span.

After decades tucked away on a leafy campus in Merion, Pa., Barnes– world-class collection of post-impressionist, early modern art, and avant-garde European works has relocated to a posh new building on the Parkway in Center City Philadelphia. It is one of the biggest art world stories on the year.

For some art lovers, the switch remains a hornet’s nest. Where the original building was neo-classical and sober, the new Barnes is post-modern, all raw stone and glass. Here’s another beef: The heart-stopping paintings hang in rooms where the relationship between architecture and art is not as deeply personal and eccentric, as it was in Merion, but rather precise and impersonal.

Barnes Foundation brass and the tourism folks in Philly beg to disagree.

In its new location close to the Rodin Museum and not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  officials point to increased public access, enhanced programs, additional amenities, and a much more comfortable and user-friendly destination. They also have pledged to try to duplicate the intimate experience in Merion by limiting the number of viewers in each gallery at one time.

The Barnes has changed, but it is unchanged. At 93,000 square feet, it is nearly 10 times larger than Merion. However, on a recent visit it appears the New York architect team of Billie Tsien and co-architect Tod Williams have succeeded in retaining the original Barnes’ identity and integrity without resorting to strict reproduction.

At the new Barnes almost nothing is out of place. Even down to the same mustard-colored burlap that covers the walls where the pictures are hung.

The twin pillars of Barnes’ world are Renoir, represented by 181 works (the largest concentration in the world), and Cézanne with 69, mostly masterpieces. He never seemed to tire of playing these two off each other. The 2,500 items in the collection also include major works by (among others) Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Picasso, Seurat, Degas, and van Gogh as well as Old Master paintings, including pieces by El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian.

For four decades Barnes preached that all good forms of art should be considered equal. In his collection visitors will discover hundreds of antiquities, African and medieval sculptures, Pennsylvania folk art, Navajo rugs,  ceramics, Asian prints, and medieval manuscripts. There is a myriad of antique decorative metalwork — from door hinges to silver necklaces — that impart a rhythmic accompaniment.

As at Merion, the galleries are devoid of text panels and even wall labels. Most of the works display the artist’s last name or some other cultural identification nailed to their frames, generally as small brass tags. It reinforces Barnes’ mandate — to show, not tell.

Printed guides are stored in benches in each gallery that identify the works on view.  One element that has dramatically changed for the better is the lighting in the galleries. Windows are tinted to filter out damaging ultraviolet light, allowing in just 14 percent natural daylight.  Cezanne’s “Boy with Skull,” famed for its blue-grays, actually has many greens.  Early visitors inquired if some of the paintings had been cleaned. They had not.

“These Renoirs [on the second floor] are alive in a way they simply weren’t before, simply because of the blues and the greens really coming out,” said Barnes director Derek Gillman.

“The architects were able to add natural sources of light in nearly every room. That brings out colors in the paintings you couldn’t see before. The Cezannes and the Picassos were so powerful that even in the poor light, they held the rooms. And now, the Renoirs are coming back, and that’s what Albert Barnes intended.”

Extraordinary entrepreneur

The move follows a decade of bitter debate over the future of one of the premier private collections of art in the world that in terms of numbers alone is estimated today to be worth between $20 billion and $30 billion. Barnes died in a car crash in 1951. His will dictated that the paintings continue to hang in the Merion building in perpetuity.

Vincent van Gogh’s “The Postman”

The foundation’s critics harp that what Barnes wanted was for these paintings to hang in the gallery he built for them in 1922.  How does it honor the founder’s legacy?  It was reported over and over that Barnes had no patience for pretentiousness, privilege, or elitism. And for that matter, you can toss in Philadelphia as well, now home to his collection.

The son of a Philadelphia letter carrier, Albert emerged from Kensington, an impoverished, hardscrabble neighborhood, eventually earning a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and studying chemistry in Germany.

As an entrepreneur, Barnes together with Herman Hille discovered a way to create a silver compound that kept its antiseptic qualities but removed its caustic irritation. They named the compound Argyrol, and the business boomed when dozens of states required the application of Argyrol to the eyes of every newborn infant.

Barnes timed the sale of his business perfectly, selling at the peak of a surging market in July 1929 for a reported sum of $6 million. A few months later the stock market crashed.  Barnes’ foray into the French art world first occurred in February 1912, when he dispatched a Central High School pal William Glackens to Paris to scout galleries for modern paintings. Two weeks later Glackens brought home 33 oils, prints, and watercolors, among them Picasso,  Cezanne,  and van Gogh. In June 1912 Barnes took over, beginning regular transatlantic voyages where he developed an acquisition network of artists, dealers, and agents in Europe.

The Barnes Foundation was officially dedicated in March 1925. Its purpose was not to be a museum, but rather to set up an educational method based on experiencing original work. Barnes was obsessed, daily arranging and re-arranging his hundreds of valuable artworks cheek-by-jowl in the mansion that he built for the purpose. With art hanging floor to ceiling in the galleries, Barnes let the harmony of shapes and forms speak for themselves. He also severely limited public access — no color reproductions allowed; no sketches were permitted by visitors to the galleries; and the works were never loaned.

On Sunday July 24, 1951, Barnes decided to drive 25 miles from his Chester County country estate Ker-Feal to Merion. Along the way there was a stop sign installed on Route 29 near Phoenixville which Barnes  vehemently refused to observe. He roared through the intersection and was clobbered by a 10-ton tractor trailer. The 79-year-old’s body was thrown 40 feet from the car.

By the time he died, Barnes had made a legion of establishment enemies. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed him “The Terrible-Tempered Dr. Barnes.”  Yet, he had built something incomparable.

National treasure

Close to five years in the making, the “Gallery in a Garden” officially opened on May 19. Architects Williams and Tsien chose a warm, varied Negev stone to wrap the exterior of the Barnes structure, a subtle nod to the original material selection of a French limestone for the Merion Gallery. The choreographed procession into the Barnes Collection begins with an approach through an allée of trees flanked by long, flat pools of water in a park-like setting.

The Light Court is the living room of the Barnes Foundation. During the day, it is primarily used for the orientation of groups and for casual seating and conversation as visitors move in and out of the Collection Gallery. The Lower Level houses a hub of educational spaces centered around the library, conservation facilities, two classrooms, a gift shop, restaurant, and café to act as buffer zones to the rooms hung with the core collection.  Admissions are timed so as to maintain an intimate atmosphere — 150 people are admitted per hour.

Still, it’s the jaw-dropping works of art and their deeply personal, eccentric installation that are front-and-center. The blockbuster paintings make your head spin, gems such as Seurat’s “Models,” Cézanne’s “Card-Players”, and van Gogh’s “Postman Roulin.”

Nearly every room is an exhibition unto itself. Each seamlessly mixes natural and artificial illumination into a diffuse, even light.  Liberated from the dark salons of the Merion building, the paintings are eye-openers. Matisse fans and art historians will be especially delighted in the “Joy of Life,” a key marker in the development of modern art. Instead of hanging in a dark stairwell, it is now ensconced in a small second-floor room. His mural “The Dance” unfurls above the bright, tall windows of the Main Gallery.

What’s the upshot of the new Barnes‘  Officials report that since the project’s groundbreaking in November 2009, membership has jumped from 400 to nearly 20,000. The projected attendance in 2013 is pegged at 350,00o.

Most importantly, Dr. Barnes’ collection inspires visitors to reflect on the value of art and how it connects to their lives. Early reviews on the relocation have finally established the Barnes as a long-deserved prominent and influential national treasure.

One would hope even the irascible Dr. Barnes might find that appealing.

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Hunt magazine since 2003.