25 Oct 2012

The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia

I happened to be in the city of Philadelphia recently to do a job and managed to find the time to visit what has to be the most amazing collection of art of all descriptions that I have ever seen. I am of course referring to the Barnes collection, which is now harboured in a modern building right in the centre of Philadelphia.
The Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia
The story of Albert Barnes is a remarkable example of an American success story. He was born into a working-class family in 1872 and grew up in Philadelphia. He obtained a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania before pursuing his studies in Germany. Back in the USofA, Barnes, togther with Herman Hille, discovered an antiseptic silver compound called Argyrol that was used to prevent infant blindness. Having gone into the pharmaceutical business in 1908, the Barnes Company made a fortune thanks to the success of Agryrol. Barnes had already begun collecting and went on to buy extensively art of many kinds and periods, with an emphasis on French impressionists and post-impressionists. He created the Barnes Foundation back in 1922, whose stated aim was to «promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts ». He died in 1961, aged 79, leaving a testament that I will mention later on.
Dr Barnes

Many things are remarkable about this collection: its size, its eclecticism, the depth it shows in the collections of the works of numerous artists, and the way it is set out and hung. Dr. Barnes left his collection, via a Foundation, to his city, stipulating that it should neither be moved from his town house nor the works altered in their positions on the walls. The problem was that his house, although quite large, did not have the facilities to accomodate an increasing flow of visitors and was situated (it still is, and it harbours another part of the Barnes Foudnation: that devoted to his wife's botanical collection) some way out of the city centre of Philadelphia, and with very little parking space and inadequate public transport. So it was decided to move the collection into a modern building situated in the centre of town. This created some conservative furore, but I think they made the right decision. To respect at least part of Barnes' wishes, the shapes and proportions of the original rooms have been reproduced within this modern building, along with the very idiosyncratic hanging set-up devised by Barnes himself.

The original Barnes home, from which the collection has now moved
The central ground-floor gallery in the new building, which also reproduces the lighting of the old Barnes house. One can just see part of the Matisse triptych high on the left, fitting into the arches. And another strange feature of this hanging are the hundreds of old door fittings, which Barnes also collected, on the walls in between the paintings like so many punctuation marks. 
Now about the paintings and other works to be seen here. First of all you need to book your ticket ahead if you hope to get in, as they wisely limit the numbers of people allowed in at one time. Luckily I had my press card with me! Second you had better allow yourself at least two hours, and better still three. There are more Renoirs, Cézannes and Matisses here than anywhere alse I can think of. And there is much, much more besides.
I have to admit to disliking the paintings of Renoir. I know this is not a widely-held point of view, but I consider him to be a bad painter: all that sloppy softness and women who look like they are made of Spam (anyone remember Spam?). I think Renoir is the David Hamilton of painting, although his women must outweigh the Hamiltonian nymphette models by about three to one apiece. There is no getting away from Renoir in this place though, as there are usually several on each wall. They just pop up all over the galleries, like bad pennies. This is partly due to the fact that Barnes clearly had a big thing for Renoir, and partly due to his practise of hanging paintings from different styles and periods together, and often in rows three or more high on densely cluttered walls.
Once one gets used to this clutter, the hanging becomes legible and often very interesting. The anachronism in particular can be most illuminating. In one gallery I saw, surrounding the inevitable blotch of Renoirs, a Titian next to a fantastic (and anonymous) 15th century German portrait of a woman, followed by some fabulous Chinese painting on what seemed to be silk. Barnes clearly not only had a sincere and profound love of art, but also a very good eye. Or there is a Milton Avery next to a Puvis de Chavannes, and that works really well too. And so on. I found the hanging and its surprises one of the joys of visiting the Barnes collection, after an initial recoil that we can call the Renoir-repulsion syndrome.
one of the many and admirably musical (think Bach) Cézanne still-life works in this collection
Manet, for instance, of whom there are just a few stellar paintings in this collection, is an infinitely better painter than Renoir, even when he is at his most spontaneous and loose, in terms of composition and technique. But the next most important collection here, in terms of numbers of works by a single artist, must be that of Cézanne. Apples, pears and oranges everywhere! This must be the biggest collection of Cézanne still-lifes anywhere in the world. And there is much more, including some stupendous landscapes and a great portrait of his mother. But Cézanne, like Matisse but unlike Renoir, is a truly great painter. He had to struggle a bit at the beginning, but when it started to click for him...wow! Cézanne builds his paintings, shaping them like a craftsman. You can see it just as much in his watercolurs, of which there are several, as in his oils, of which there are many here. His paintings are usually architectural, often constructed like written music. They do not seem spontaneous, yet they breathe life, through the vibrations, the constant conversations between shapes and colours. His use of perspective is dynamic, offset from a central viewpoint and so never static, as in the work below...
Another strong point in Cézanne's work is that most subsidiary parts of his paintings hold up on their own, such is the architectural quality of their overall composition. Next time that you look at one, just try blocking off the vision of half or a third of it with your hand and see for yourself. 
What else is to be seen here? You name it: a few Gauguins, some good early Picassos, a fabulous series of Henri "Douanier" Rousseau, the odd Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat, and a mass of Matisses, from the very good to the indifferent (Matisse, like Cézanne and Van Gogh, was not a "natural" draughtsman, unlike Picasso). Oh, and a very good Frans Hals, etc, etc. I will have to do another article on this place as there is just too much to say!
Meanwhile here are a few more images of some of those I mentioned....a bit like the Barnes hanging, all mixed up.
Now do you want to go to Philly? Here's the main place to go.....
And you can try this restaurant (actually they have several, I understand, but I tried Barbuzzo's for lunch) when you are there. There wine and beer list is is good, the place is simple and friendly and the food is ok:


  1. Very interesting post, David. Should one respect a donator’s will at all cost ?
    This being said, every time YOU go to places to “do a job”, we end up learning a lot about all your other activities. How many bullets does it usually take to complete the “job” ?
    For someone so skeptical about Marx, Karl Marx, you seem to me a “remarquable marksman”. If this is not an alliteration, I never will read one ...

  2. In answer to your first question Luc, I think not. They have reespected the spirit of the donator's will, by hanging the pictures as they were in Barnes' house, and in rooms that have the same sizes and shapes. But they are more easily accessible and far better protected. So "spirit" rather than "letter".
    In answer to your second, it takes 2.
    As to Marx, you known that I am more of the Groucho persuasion.