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The Barnes Foundation: Two Buildings, One Mission

by David B. Brownlee
Skira/Rizzoli, 80 pp., $12.95
Michael Moran/OTTO
The Main Room of the new Barnes Foundation gallery in Philadelphia, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to allow for the collection to be arranged exactly as it was in its original Lower Merion location. On the far wall, Seurat’s Poseuses hangs above Cézanne’s The Card Players; along the top of the wall at left is Matisse’s mural The Dance.


Nothing less than a latter-day miracle—a wholly unexpected and an unbelievably lucky one at that—has occurred in Philadelphia, where the most acrimonious and protracted power struggle in the recent history of art collecting has finally come to a glorious and uplifting conclusion. The opening this spring of the long-anticipated new gallery of the Barnes Foundation Collection, the finest concentration of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the Western Hemisphere, has been a triumph for all concerned. The combined talents of the New York–based husband-and-wife architectural team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, their senior associate Philip Ryan, and the landscape architect Laurie Olin have resulted in a wholly sympathetic and virtually unimprovable setting for a superabundance of treasures by such modern masters as Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Matisse, and Picasso, miscellaneous Old Masters, and many unnamed African tribal artists.

How such a fortuitous outcome could have emerged from a tortuous tangle of circumstances unequaled in the annals of modern art is a question that will surely fascinate analysts of the museum industry for years to come. But there is no doubt about who the big winner is: the general public, which now can enjoy unprecedented access to a peerless cultural patrimony long fettered by restrictions imposed by the high-minded, visionary, yet maniacally controlling Albert Coombs Barnes (1872–1951).

Barnes’s fierce determination to manipulate his enviable legacy from beyond the grave nearly caused his beloved possessions to be sold off by his designated legatee, Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in southeastern Pennsylvania, to which he left stewardship of his foundation, many believed, as a rebuke to the Philadelphia elite that had long snubbed him. As one cultivated doyen of Philadelphia high society dryly remarked years later of this self-made pharmaceutical tycoon and perpetually embittered outsider, “Perhaps we ought to have invited Barnes to our parties.”

Thanks to a coalition of concerned institutions and individuals that banded together early in the new millennium—including the Pew Charitable Trust, the Annenberg and Lenfest foundations, along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Getty, Luce, and Mellon foundations, among others, as well as numerous private benefactors—the impending dissolution of this stupendous hoard was staved off and a huge cultural calamity thereby averted. A malign and melodramatic documentary film opposed to the new Barnes, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal (2009), attempted to portray the institution’s relocation to Philadelphia’s Museum Mile from its original home in the Main Line suburb of Lower Merion as an act of naked thievery. But this civic rescue mission was actually comparable to a desperate family’s intervention aimed at saving a shared inheritance from being irrevocably squandered by an incompetent, out-of-control relative.

The saga’s tumultuous backstory, reported by John Anderson in his Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, 1 makes it obvious who the real villains and heroes were, and for once the good guys won. To summarize briefly, Barnes’s overly conservative investment directives reduced his foundation’s solvency by the inflationary 1970s. As the value of his art soared exponentially—in inverse proportion to the shrinking endowment—the Barnes’s resources were further diminished by a costly lawsuit over a proposed parking lot on its property in an upper-class residential neighborhood opposed by local residents, and sapped through extravagant spending by some of its officials.

Although substantial funds were realized during the 1990s through a major book deal and a lucrative international tour of the collection while the gallery building was being restored, the Barnes was effectively bankrupt by the turn of the millennium. In 2002 the beleaguered Barnes board petitioned a court to let them break Albert Barnes’s trust indenture and move his art to the center of Philadelphia in order to make it more convenient to the general public—admission had been by appointment only and was severely limited—and thereby alleviate the institution’s fiscal crisis. Barnes had insisted that none of his eight hundred paintings or thousands of other objects could ever be sold, loaned, or removed from the elaborate installations he contrived for them. Thus, though the court agreed to the relocation, it stipulated that the collector’s displays be strictly maintained in the institution’s new home.


Barnes, whose father labored in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse, put himself through the University of Pennsylvania and earned a medical degree, but saw greater financial potential in manufacturing medicines. He teamed up with a more technically adept colleague who devised the formula for an eyewash that prevented congenital gonorrheal infections in newborns. A skillful marketer, Barnes bought out his partner and made a fortune from the soon-ubiquitous solution, which he named Argyrol. The elder Barnes was a friend of Peter Widener, a fellow abattoir worker who later became a trolley magnate and an important art patron. Widener’s example likely inspired the younger Barnes to assemble his own, far more significant collection once the big money began to roll in.

In 1912 Barnes asked an old high school classmate, the artist William Glackens, to buy paintings for him in Europe, and his friend’s selection of choice works by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Picasso set the tone for the collection. Starting with Glackens’s choices, Barnes, relying on his own formidable artistic judgment, went on to build a collection of forty-six Picassos, fifty-nine Matisses, sixty-nine Cézannes, and 181 Renoirs, as well as Old Master pictures by Hans Baldung Grien, Tintoretto, Veronese, El Greco, Frans Hals, Salomon van Ruysdael, Claude Lorraine, and Goya, along with modernist works by Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Douanier Rousseau, Redon, Braque, Modigliani, Utrillo, de Chirico, Soutine, Klee, Miró, and the Americans Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth, Glackens, Marsden Hartley, and Horace Pippin.

To house them, in 1922 Barnes engaged the Beaux-Arts architect Paul Philippe Cret (now best remembered as Louis Kahn’s teacher at the University of Pennsylvania) to build an imposing limestone-clad mansion in Lower Merion, a township bordering Philadelphia to the northwest. There he intermingled his pictures in galleries further crowded with Pennsylvania German painted furniture, Native and Early American pottery, Navajo jewelry, Greek antiquities, classical Chinese sculpture, and any other rare and beautiful objects that caught his all-encompassing eye.

Certainly the oddest component of these eclectic ensembles was the array of metal hardware and utensils he hung all around his paintings like nimbuses emanating from saints—curlicues of antique wrought iron that often echo sinuous linear elements in canvases or decorative objects near them. Detached from their functional setting, these finely crafted door knockers, escutcheons, hinges, keys, ladles, latches, padlocks, and other implements serve as calligraphic glosses on the pictures they surround. An even more effective display element is the ochre-colored burlap Barnes specified for the gallery walls, a color so harmonious with most of his pictures that one wonders why it is not widely copied elsewhere.

Another controversial aspect of the installation was his practice of “skying” pictures in tiers two or three rows high, a vertical arrangement traditionally employed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Royal Academy in London for their annual exhibitions. Yet the Barnes galleries are so well proportioned and the pictures so intelligently disposed that there is almost never any difficulty in seeing even things positioned high on the walls.

Certain pictures, the Cézannes in particular, are strong enough to be read without difficulty across a large room even when hung eight feet up, as his Large Bathers is. The only serious exception is Seurat’s Poseuses, a tableau of artist’s models that possesses the transcendent equilibrium of a Botticelli. In an instance of complete aesthetic overkill, Barnes placed that shimmering Pointillist apparition, which begs to be seen at close range as well as from a further remove, over Cézanne’s somewhat smaller but monumental The Card Players. (Barnes officials are contemplating the periodic use of a forklift to allow visitors to view the Poseuses at eye level.)

On occasion, Barnes’s juxtapositions, all of which are maintained in the new museum, can be breathtaking. For example, in Room 22, on the second floor, the face-off between two ferocious Picasso oil studies of African-mask-like heads (1907), contemporary with his revolutionary Demoiselles d’Avignon, sets up a reciprocal magnetism further intensified by three late Medieval figures of the crucified Christ hung between these small but terrifying pictures. Barnes may have been a crank, but he was also touched with some kind of genius.

That appears especially clear now that visitors can see these fabled works better than at any time since Barnes bought them. The collector, fretful that light might harm his treasures, kept the Lower Merion galleries immersed in a depressingly subfusc gloom. Thus the most welcome aspect of the new Barnes is the veritable visual resurrection occasioned by the lighting designer Paul Marantz’s exquisite calibration and mixture of natural and artificial illumination—only two of the twenty-three display rooms do not have some daylighting—which has made even those well acquainted with the collection wonder if the works were cleaned as part of the reinstallation, though they were not. Perhaps the luckiest beneficiary of this transformation is Matisse’s tripartite mural The Dance (1932–1933), which Barnes commissioned for the lunettes just below the ceiling of the triple-height Main Room. This jazzy composition has always fairly vibrated with kinetic energy, but now its plummy colors strut their stuff, too.

In The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks, the new official guidebook, two Barnes curators, Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy, as well as the museum’s director, Derek Gillman, capture the central qualities of the collection. However, this commendable survey does not supersede Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern,2 the first publication to reproduce these works in color (which Barnes had prohibited because he believed that his pictures’ true tonalities would inevitably be misrepresented). The earlier volume is further preferable for the art historian Joseph J. Rishel’s entries on Cézanne, which include some of the finest writing on that artist by any scholar, including the brilliant Meyer Schapiro, who Barnes spitefully barred from Lower Merion while he let Cub Scout packs and the odd working Joe roam the galleries.

Also newly issued is Martha Lucy and John House’s Renoir in the Barnes Collection, the initial volume in a projected series of catalogues raisonnés on the artists whose work Barnes acquired in greatest depth. It is regrettable that this is the first installment to appear, in that Barnes’s Renoirs—the one instance when his superlative eye failed him—are his collection’s weakest link. His taste tended toward the artist’s excruciating late female nudes, grotesque creatures with puny craniums and colossal bottoms—wobbly orange-tinted images of flesh so bloated that they seem eerily prophetic of our country’s current pandemic of morbid obesity.


The design for the new Barnes emerged through an invitational competition organized by Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Portfolios were solicited from some thirty firms, and the selection committee, which included Barnes trustees and representatives of institutions backing the move, evaluated a well-chosen shortlist of six finalists: Tadao Ando, Thom Mayne of Morphosis, and Rafael Moneo (all Pritzker Prize winners), as well as Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Kengo Kuma, and Williams and Tsien.

  1. 1

    Norton, 2003. 

  2. 2

    Knopf/Lincoln University Press, 1993. 

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