Not just art for art’s sake

Amy Hughes

There’s a new, or perhaps old, kid in town and it’s pulling both the punters and the posh crowd to Philadelphia. The Barnes Foundation is probably THE most talked about opening in the art world these days. Its list of holdings alone is staggering: 181 Renoirs (the largest single group of the artist’s paintings), 69 Cézannes, 59 works by Matisse, 46 Picassos, and 16 Modigliani’s are just some highlights. Barnes also befriended and collected American painter William Glackens (70 of his works reside at the Foundation).

Impressive… the ‘new’ Barnes Foundation

But like so many things, it’s not just the big names that make the Barnes Foundation such a captivating place; it’s the back story. I’ll tell you the nutshell version.

Albert Barnes came from a working class family. Born in the late 19th century, he was intelligent and highly motivated. Barnes earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to study chemistry in Germany. While working for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia he and a colleague struck gold when they invented an antiseptic called Argryol. The product would not only bring Barnes’ fortune, but also a chance to educate himself, and his staff about a subject he was passionate about: art.

Barnes bought out his partner, and structured his employees’ work day to include two-hour seminars to read and learn about art. He also resumed a friendship with a chum from high school, American artist William Glackens. The irascible self-made Barnes sent Glackens to Paris to acquire a collection of fine art, which eventually would include Glackens’ work, too.

Barnes did post-grad work at Columbia, refining his eye, and went on his own collecting trips to Europe, becoming close friends with Leo Stein (Gertrude’s brother), developing a fondness for the expat who introduced Barnes to the works of Matisse, Picasso and others.

Throughout his life, those early, meagre beginnings, would define Barnes. He was a crusty character, who took pleasure in denying the privileged access to his art. Instead, he preferred to spend time and money ensuring his working class staff became more critical thinkers through their examination of art.

Contemporary… Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre

Barnes died in 1951 in a car accident with his dog next to him. His foundation, established in 1922, with its school, Barnes’ art collection and an arboretum had always been located in Merion, a suburb about half an hour North West of Philadelphia and more importantly, closed to the public. I’ll spare you the details of all the court proceedings, but as the result of litigation, the Foundation was finally forced to open the Gallery two days a week. A few years ago, facing financial problems, the board won the right to move the Gallery collection to Philadelphia, where it is now finally open to the public every day except Tuesdays.

The Foundation is embracing the public’s interest and it shows. Every Friday the gallery stays open until 10pm with a wide range of events like live jazz, sake tastings, Arab music to orchid lectures. Families are encouraged with free programmes every weekend.

Despite the fact that Barnes would have hated the general public trouncing through his gallery, it appears to be one of the most popular galleries to have opened in some time, anywhere. It’s so busy, tickets are timed, though on a recent Friday night it wasn’t too busy to affect the viewing. In fact, the only thing that was a bit bizarre were the guards who hovered like the National Guard, objecting to even my iPhone note-taking. Perhaps they were trained by Barnes himself.

There’s no doubt the Foundation is worth all the hype it’s been receiving. The building is an architectural feat, with water features, an LEED certificate for its green-ness (rain water is recycled), and it’s outdoor space, and it’s massive, open rooms and high ceilings incorporating local materials.

And the art…if the list I rattled off didn’t make you sit up and take notice, let me be clear; this is an amazing, well-rounded, carefully constructed collection. There are Degas which thankfully break from the balletic tradition of the painter, and several other examples of work which are clear departures from the norm of usually identifiable Cézannes, Renoirs and Seurat’s.

I could have lingered for hours reading correspondence between Barnes and the few he confided in, and shared his love of art with.

If you’re headed to New York and have even half a day to spare, it’s worth the 90-minute ride in a plush seat aboard Amtrak to take in this collection. It’s a short cab ride from the station, and can be taken in an hour to an hour and a half. My suggestion – wrap up a week in New York with a Friday night in Philly. Few things compare to a live jazz soundtrack while staring at one of the best private art collections in the world.

Barnes Foundation


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