We visited the City of Brotherly Love last month mainly to see the “Late Renoir” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but also to make one last visit to the Barnes Foundation before its fabulous art collection left Merion forever. (Emsworth reviewed the dismal circumstances surrounding that impending move, and put the blame where it belonged, in this post.) Of course, the Barnes is awash in Renoirs, especially late Renoirs, and we couldn’t help noticing that the ones at the Barnes were every bit as fine, in quantity and in quality, as the late Renoirs that the PMA gathered from all over the world for the special “Late Renoir” exhibit. (The Barnes has a strict policy against lending works to other museums, which must have frustrated the daylights out of the curators of the PMA exhibit.)
On this visit to the Barnes we purposely devoted more time to works we’d had to rush past on previous visits. Amidst the riches of Cezannes, Picassos, and Matisses, we hadn’t paid much attention on previous visits to the sprinkling of earlier masters — El Greco, Hals, Gerard David, Titian, Goya, Courbet, and Corot – throughout the galleries. What pleased us most this time was a first-rate King David Playing the Harp, in Gallery V, for which we have unfortunately been unable to find a digital image. (The Barnes continues to prohibit all photography; we wonder if that will change when the pictures are in their new quarters.)
And while we had the impression that Albert Barnes didn’t think much for American art, this time around we noticed more of it than we remembered. Particularly appealing were three gentle domestic scenes by Horace Pippin from the early 1940s, surely some of his very best pieces. Seen in person, these have more of a layered, almost collage-like appearance than a two-dimensional image will suggest. Pippin had no formal art training, and we suppose Barnes, who had a strong patronizing streak, put Pippin in the same category as the untrained French artist Henri Rousseau, whose work Barnes collected extensively.
We much prefer Pippin to the French painter. His paintings have depth and solidity and human feeling; the nonsensical fantasy paintings of Rousseau don’t. In fact, we don’t really care for Rousseau at all; he didn’t get perspective and his figures are oddly proportioned. On this visit we noticed that Barnes also collected the self-taught painter John Kane, who painted, of all things, scenes of Pittsburgh.
We knew already that the Barnes Foundation had paintings by Albert Barnes’s friend William Glackens, the American impressionist, but we didn’t remember as many of them as we saw this time around. Also jumping out at us for the first time, scattered here and there, were a couple of paintings by one of our very favorite American impressionists, Ernest Lawson, he of the thick layers of paint and the jewel-toned palette.
Several galleries on the second floor at the Barnes were already closed in anticipation of the collection’s moving to downtown Philadelphia next year; only as we were driving home did I start remembering some of the paintings that we didn’t see, like Matisse’s in-your-face Fauve portrait, The Red Madras Headress. We were told the Barnes will stay open into next spring (2011), although more and more galleries will be closed in the intervening months.
We wonder what the Barnes Collection will really be like in its new home when it opens in 2012. Supposedly the galleries as they are now at the mansion in Merion will be recreated in the new building so that the paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces can all be arranged once more exactly as Albert C. Barnes dictated.
Averse to change as we are, we suppose that’s a good thing — although after a number of visits to the Barnes we’ve concluded that the paintings are not best appreciated hung so close together, with so many on a given wall. The eye tends to wander too easily from one painting to the one next to it, even when you’d rather stay focused.
And too many of the paintings are hung so high that you can’t examine them at close range — and others are off in corners so that you can see them only from one angle. It must also be said that the light in some of the galleries is inadequate; if anything changes at the new location, we hope it will be refinements in the lighting system.
We also have to wonder: will it really be possible for more people to see Barnes’s collection in the new location? In our most recent visits to the Barnes, the galleries seemed to be crowded to capacity. Without putting the collection in larger galleries and hanging the pictures farther apart – neither of which seems likely to happen – the Barnes won’t be able to let in more patrons at any given time than it does now. They’ll be able to attract more patrons only by keeping its doors open longer hours and more days. More patrons and more revenue are surely necessary if the Barnes is to stop losing money as it has in Merion; we can’t imagine that operating expenses at the new downtown facility will be much lower.
Our final visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania was the pleasantest. We made our reservations through a friendly, chatty phone lady; inside, we didn’t run into any of the surly security and crowd-control people that we’d seen in the past. Finally — too late to matter — the Barnes Foundation has learned a little about public relations.
Why are they moving? See this post.