A Tour of the Controversial Barnes Museum in Philadelphia

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I went to the Barnes Foundation in December with my best friend’s daughter, Charlotte, and my own daughter, Amanda. It was a lovely visit because we had three generations of women not only enjoying each other’s company but learning from each other. It started off with a drive along the Schuylkill through some of the Fairmount neighborhoods where we found parking right outside Buena Onda Tacos. We had to start with food because you must constantly feed a 10-year-old year old.  I have to tell you those are some of the best tacos I’ve had in a long time.  Well done Jose Garces!

We were able to keep our parking spot and walk a block to The Barnes.  The museum did a really good job of getting people in and out of the museum. There are timed tickets due to Covid so we stood in the line at the outside ticket kiosk. There was a woman there with an iPad and she immediately took us and we were able to get the last tickets for the 1:30 showing which was to begin in two minutes. As we walked into the museum, we gave Charlotte the rules of the road. Do not stand too close to the artwork and do not touch the artwork. Luckily, Charlotte is a mature 10-year-old and really listened.

The Barnes Foundation was founded on December 4, 1922 by Albert C. Barnes, pharmaceutical entrepreneur.  The foundation was established as an educational institution “dedicated to promoting the appreciation of fine art and arboriculture” with the stipulations that the no art will be lent out, sold, or moved. Barnes began collecting art in 1902 and was a lifelong collector and because of his private collection, the Barnes owns 4000 objects worth $25 billion dedicated to Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modernist masters.  Barnes wanted the foundation as a school rather than a museum.  The art was for educational and not for commercial use.

Barnes purchased a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pennsylvania on 330 North Latch Lane, which is just outside of Philadelphia.  The original arboretum was founded in the 1880’s and bought by Barnes in 1925.  The site is adjacent to St. Joseph University. and is now known as The Barnes Arboretum at St. Joseph University.  St. Joseph University manages the arboretum and its educational program.  The Barnes has a formal rose and perennial garden, woodland, lawns, a pond, a stream, herbarium, a school, and a greenhouse.  The arboretum is open to visitors. from May to October on weekends between 11AM to 4PM.  Parking and admission are free.

Construction began on the museums and the grounds and with the help of French architect, Paul Phillippe Cret, the complex with a gallery, an administration building, and a service building were built.  Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz created Cubist bas-reliefs pieces as features to the main building.  Enfield Pottery and Tile Works created african art designs for the wrought iron portico.  Laura Leggett Barnes created a teaching garden and an arboretum school was established in 1940.  The Barnes opened its doors on March 19, 1925.

At the time of his death in 1951, Barnes had collected 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and 7 Van Goghs.  This collection is considered one of the best in the world. Barnes had a very unique way of displaying this prized collection.  He insisted that the paintings be hung densely amid medieval relics, African art, and modernist furniture, according to Katya Kazkina of Bloomberg News.  He felt that the overall effect would add to the viewing by comparing contrasting different styles, techniques, and movements.

His collection was actually moved from his Beaux Arts estate in Merion, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia in 2012.  It was a controversial move because Barnes did not want the collection to be moved.  The foundation board argued that the new facility, which would house a  classrooms, lecture hall, and modern library would better support the foundation’s educational mission.  To further sway the legal system into circumventing the restrictions in Barnes’ will, the board promised to preserve the integrity of the Merion museum by preserving the dimensions of the original galleries in the new space.  A Pennsylvania judge gave them permission to move the collection to a new $200 million building in Philadelphia based on this agreement.

So, on to our visit.  In each room, we would chat about art and we would ask Charlotte what did she like the most, what she liked the least, and why. Even though, it was difficult for her to articulate exactly what it was she approved or disapproved of, she tried hard to really look at each piece, artist, or collection and develop a sense of what she liked and what she didn’t like. As you can see from the picture below Amanda and Charlotte are discussing Van Gogh. Amanda was explaining that the details captured in a moment in time can change based on how close or far you are from the piece of work.  They talked about brush strokes, light, and the subject matter.  Amanda always wanted a little sister.


One of the best stories is about Charlotte. We were standing in one of the rooms and Charlotte points up and says that is an example of pointillism. Amanda and I looked at the picture, looked at each other, looked at Charlotte, looked back at each other and finally back at Charlotte. I said, “excuse me?” She said, “You know, pointillism. That’s pointillism.” She was right and I was surprised.  She had learned it at school. I was so impressed and could not wait to tell her mom. It was a thrill to not only hear her point out something like that but to know that she is taking in what she is learning at school.  Here is the piece:  Georges Seurat. Two Sailboats at Grandcamp.

Barnes Collection Online — Georges Seurat: Two Sailboats at Grandcamp (Deux voiliers à Grandcamp)

Even though I like the Barnes, I have a problem with how much they pack into the museum. It’s a little chaotic for me and sometimes I find it hard to appreciate one work of art because of all the noise around it. No, I don’t think art is noise; it’s just that when there’s too much cluttered around it, I find it distracting.  The other problem I have is that the pieces can be hung very high on the wall and even though they are large pieces I would prefer to see them at eye level.  You can see what I mean by the angles that I took some of the pictures.

There was a special exhibit by Suzanne Valadon.  Valadon was a french painter who specialized in female nudes, portraits of women, still lifes, and landscapes.  She was not formally trained and was not confined to a painting tradition, although she leaned towards Symbolism and Post-Impressionism.  She reinvented the themes of the old masters by looking at women bathing, reclining nude, and in interior scenes in a different light.  What makes Valadon stand out from contemporaries like Cassett is  “she resisted typical depictions of women, emphasizing class trappings and their sexual attractiveness, through her realistic depiction of unidealised and self-possessed women who are not overly sexualised.”  Her approach to painting woman included how she approached her own portrayals.  She painted many nude self-portrait over her life which captured her aging realistically. She championed working-class woman and their way of life.

The exhibit at The Barnes is first major U.S. solo exhibition of Valadon’s work.  Amanda and I were honored to have seen it, although it was not easy walking through it with Charlotte because by that time she was at the end of her attention span and was getting tired.  She painted woman as they were and didn’t idealize them or paint them they way they should be portrayed.  It was realistic and sometimes raw.  At times, I felt like she was refused convention and was giving a middle finger to those conventions by painting middle-class woman in harsh and “artless” positions and robust proportions.  These are not the woman of Degas, Renoir, or Steer who are thin, beautiful, and graceful. These are women who are real and almost unaltered by standards of their day.

So, enough of my lecturing on my thoughts about art.  I enjoy art and appreciate it.  This is a wonderful collection even with its controversies and limitations.  Amanda and I don’t push our thoughts onto Charlotte and the trip was to introduce her to art and for Amanda to finally get to The Barnes.  For me it was an opportunity to spend the day with two amazing people that I love very much.  Mission accomplished.


The Complex History of the Barnes Foundation




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