A final visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion

Our wife rightly rebuked us for saying that Renoir's 1886 painting "Garden Scene in Brittany" (Gallery IX at the Barnes Foundation), reminded us, just a little, of Thomas Kinkade's schlock art

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.)

Corot: "Woman Reading" (Grand Gallery at the Barnes Foundation)

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.)

Horace Pippin: "Giving Thanks" (Gallery XII at the Barnes Collection)

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.

A wonderful Picasso from his Rose Period, "Figures with a Goat" (Gallery XXIII at the Barnes Collection)

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.

William Glackens: "Bathing Scene" (Gallery XII at the Barnes Collection)

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.

Amedeo Modigliani: "Nude - Mahogany Red" (Gallery XXI at the Barnes Foundation)

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.

One thing we do know: the new home of the Barnes Collection won't be sitting on acres of lawns and gardens, as it has for decades

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.

Matisse: "Seated Odalisque" (Gallery XIX at the Barnes Foundation)

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. 

This congenial domestic scene, "The Luncheon", is perhaps our favorite Renoir at the Barnes Foundation (Gallery XIII)

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.


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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Phoenix:

    Pardon my belated response to the ill-tempered comments you left on my “Emsworth” blog several weeks ago.

    First, I never claimed to have any “qualifications” or “scholarly experience” in the field of art. What gave you the idea that I did make such a claim?

    Second, I don’t have any axe to grind. I’m just a middling lawyer in Rochester, New York who happens to love fine art and has spent a lot of time studying it on his own. As far as the Barnes Foundation controversy is concerned, I have no connection with it whatsoever and don’t know any of the people involved. But that’s no reason why I shouldn’t have an opinion on it, like anyone else.

    Third, what gives you the idea I’m some kind of “elitist”? I don’t have money and never have had any. I haven’t gotten rich at my work. I don’t mingle with the rich and powerful.

    Fourth, I’ve kept my blog anonymous because it seems risky to me to put personal information out on the internet. That doesn’t seem especially “spineless” to me, just prudent. What’s with the name-calling? I never did anything to you.

    Fifth, doesn’t it seem obvious even to you that Dr. Barnes acted foolishly in naming the trustees of his will — the folks who bungled and mismanaged the trust assets? As both a lawyer and an art lover, I surely would have advised him to choose different trustees. If that’s “blaming the victim”, so be it, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of my observations.

    Sixth, I don’t understand why you think the government had any obligation to carry out Dr. Barnes’s vision for his collection. If a person wants his wishes to be carried out after his death, that’s his responsibility. He takes the risk that his legacy will be mismanaged, as Dr. Barnes’s was. Where does the government come in?

    Seventh, did you really fail to gather from my posts that I was genuinely sorry that the collection was being moved from Merion, where I have enjoyed seeing it for so many years? I said so in the clearest possible words.

    Finally, I suppose my blogging in the first person plural might seem pretentious. I’m sorry you didn’t care for it.

  2. ‘Emsworth’—stop harping on your contention that Dr. Barnes didn’t properly fund the Trust he painstakingly, laboriously created; he DID fund it, with $10 MILLION dollars, which was criminally mis-managed and sold out by those he entrusted it’s care to. Are you seriously going to blame Dr. Barnes for the greed and avarice of others ??! It’s equivalent to blaming the victim for being robbed. Shame on you.

  3. I was thunderstruck when I first learned about the Barnes Foundation. His otherworldly collection of the Great Masters is breathtaking as are his many writings about Art, his deep and abiding love of it, determination to protect yet foster broader understanding of it. As an artist I find his letters heart-rending, poignantly insightful and terribly wise. This man worked legendarily hard to educate himself and others regarding painting, Art. He worked just as hard, was just as ingenious in his career labors which allowed him to earn the millions he spent to acquire this unparalleled collection. Those works belong to him, rightfully so. You may call the film “The Art of the Steal” sensationalist, but whatever it’s flaws a harsh truth is described within it, namely, the highest level Machiavellian plotting to take this much-coveted collection away from it’s moorings, from the meticulously planned setting Barnes devised for it. He literally lived and breathed Art; few collectors in history, no matter how enthusiastic, will ever approach the caliber of scholarly pursuit & unmitigated love Barnes invested into his priceless collection. How tragic and shameful, then, that it was so summarily stolen from his the legacy he intended for it. His legal trust WAS broken and many people were involved in the breaking of it. If, as you say, Art belongs to everyone, then WHY weren’t public funds used to keep Barnes’s collection where he wanted it to stay ? You can’t have it both ways. I believe as the other poster; if you think Art belongs to the world, try to convince artists they should give their work away. If your definition was meant to cover only what are considered ‘great works of Art’, good luck trying to get those donated, either. Barnes was robbed and alot of folks benefitted from it, period. Related to the magnitude of the crime I should think his ghost would haunt the new digs, regardless of how beautifully crafted it’s architects caused it to be. A multitude of people have looked the other way about this, undoubtedly because they stood to gain from it.
    Your writings and attitude toward Barnes’s original building & Foundation in Merion comes off as whiny & elitist smarty-pants for the sake of being smarty-pants, not because you have a valid point. YOU didn’t spend most of your life working for,collecting, housing & displaying those works, he did; so who the hell are you exactly to term yourself the empiric “we” and write with such pompous disdain about a man whose achievements you will never even come close to approaching in your lifetime ? Of COURSE no one was allowed to take photos !!; this is so elementally understandable that I am surprised you’d stoop to complaining about it. It was HIS investment, the work of a lifetime; WHY would you assume he had some obligation to give away even more than he did ?
    Art Critics, by and large, are parasites; they neither make Art nor sense most of the time, and seek to elevate themselves by standing on the shoulders of those whose labors of devoted love create joy and wonder for the world to be dazzled, confounded by and admire. As always with these sort of verbal pot-shots, this column-blog is spinelessly anonymous; no mention of your qualifications/education/scholarly experience to sit in judgement of your betters. Seems rather that you have an axe or two to grind, but you’re way out of your depth here with Barnes, no matter what your word count. A “critical eye on the Arts” indeed. Stick to being anonymous, because therein your name matches your worth.

  4. Art lovers are gawkers? How contemptuous is that? I don’t know why the rule against perpetuities doesn’t apply to the Barnes Collection. I guess because there is no human beneficiary, so there is no measuring life. The law disfavors people trying to maintain control of property well beyond the grave. This case is a perfect example of why. The world and circumstances change.

    I think Barnes was monomaniacal and selfish. Any reasonable collector would have left this incredibly beautiful, important, and valuable treasure to the people of the world instead of trying to tie it up forever in his ego and personal resentments. Further, nobody has a corner on how art is perceived and appreciated; dictating how the art is displayed is notoriously self-centered. I think breaking the trust and making the art available to the world in an accessible, prestigious location was exactly the right thing to do–even if they could hang the art in only one way.

  5. Great article! I agree with your opinions of the Barnes. Perhaps it is better somewhere else. As I read the debates, I am shocked by the anger of those wishing the Barnes to remain in Merion. I understand the viewpoints, while I (as a pedestrian, not an elitist) happen to disagree.

    My Barnes review is posted at my site: http://www.globalpostmark.com/?p=341

    Like you, I also enjoyed the Glackens and Lawson paintings. It’s good to be surprised.

  6. Jay:
    Personally, I wish very much that things were otherwise and that Barnes’s collection was staying in Merion. But I’d like to know what empirical evidence there is for the notion that “there was enough money.” The “evidence” in the movie was laughably unpersuasive.

  7. Ah, but there was enough money to keep the foundation in Merion, on the same grounds and in the same house. On that score, my dear art critic, you are dead wrong. This was nothing more than a theft, in order to justify a change in tax status, engineered by people who leveraged their friends’ favors in key public positions.

    That art was the property of a trust, which was broken and exploited and, finally, picked apart by vultures who aren’t really interested in the art at the end of the day.

    This is bigger than any of us. Although one man put it together, it is bigger than Dr. Barnes. But this does not mean it should be relegated to a glorified concession stand for the public’s consumption in the way it will be.

    There was a lot of dirty dealing from the moment Dr. Barnes passed — if you can look the other way and still believe in the integrity the collection, I cannot.

    Simply tragic.

  8. But I’m not a Philadelphia elitist! I’ve never lived in or near Philadelphia in my life. I’m from Rochester, New York. And I’m not even an elitist in Rochester!

    You and I agree that Barnes’s trust was mismanaged by the trustees appointed by Lincoln University. We also agree that what Barnes wanted done with his collection is clear. So what, exactly, were the options left to the current trustees when it became painfully apparent that there wasn’t enough money to carry out Barnes’s intentions in Merion?

  9. Hello – I could not DISagree with you more regarding the Barnes Foundation. It is a private collection. Art does not belong to the world, it is purchased. If one truly believes it belongs to the world, one may wish to pressure artists to donate their work rather than sneer at private collectors who wish to keep their treasures just that, private.

    There is no replicating the Barnes. There is no need to ferry millions of gawkers in and out of the place. As was Dr. Barnes’ expressed wish, keep the pedestrian and haute society critics out of what I love.

    Whomever has authored these reviews seems to be the very thing Dr. Barnes despised . . . a derisive, supremist, know-it-all Philadelphia elitist. As a woman with ties all over the Main Line, your manners betray any attempt at gentility you may wish to employ.

    Please have a good day and be sure to recognise . . . Lincoln University exercised horrid judgement when appointing Trustees and mismanaged a $10 million trust. Dr. Barnes’ will is quite clear and has been bastardised to suit Philadelphia’s whim.

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