The Nation's Pulse

Dr. Barnes’s Amazing Collection

Wouldn't you rather be in Philadelphia? 

By 5.22.14

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“I would rather be in Philadelphia” was the epitaph W.C. Fields wanted on his headstone. When it comes to the Western Hemisphere’s greatest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, it is an entirely appropriate sentiment. The Barnes Foundation’s collection, now located on the Ben Franklin Parkway, is the best thing this side of Paris.

Considering that both the Wall Street Journal critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, now deceased, and Martin Filler of the New York Review of Books raved about the collection’s new $150 million campus and building as well as the art contained therein, you have a pretty solid consensus across the cultural, artistic, and political spectrum.

The person who made all this possible — a true individualist, self-made man, and nemesis of established Philadelphia society — was Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951). He “grew up poor and tough” in a working class neighborhood as reported in the helpful brochure I was handed on arrival at the museum. Barnes earned a medical degree, worked as a chemist, and made his money as a pharmaceutical manufacturer of Argyrol, a pre-antibiotic drug which prevented eye infections and blindness in newborns. He managed to sell his company, just months before the crash of 1929, to focus his energy on art collecting and his own brand of public education.

With the help of his former schoolmate, the painter William J. Glackens, whose works are on display at the Barnes, the good doctor started collecting in 1912 and never looked back. Martin Filler describes the immensity and magnificence of this collection now on view in Philadelphia:

…Barnes, relying on his own formidable artistic judgment went on to build a collection of forty-six Picassos, fifty-nine Matisses, and 181 Renoirs, as well as Old Master pictures of Hans Baldung, Grien, Tintoretto, Veronese, El Greco, Frans Hals, Salomon van Ruysdael, Claude Lorraine, and Goya, along with modernist works by Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Douanier Rousseau, Redon, Braque, Modigliani, Utrillo, de Chirico, Soutine, Klee, Miró, and the Americans Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth, Glackens, Marden Hartley, and Horace Pippin.

Dr. Barnes originally housed his priceless collection in a building located in Philadelphia’s Main Line community of Merion. Built between 1922 and 1925, it was the creation of the architect Paul Cret, a Frenchman, who also designed the Rodin Museum right next to the new Barnes. He was a commanding figure at the University of Pennsylvania for decades. The Merion museum, which is still used by the foundation for horticulture exhibits, is a beautiful, twentieth-century adaptation of the Italian Renaissance style with fine exterior ornamentation.

The new Barnes is four and half miles away from Merion and was designed by the famed architectural husband-and-wife team of Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. Williams and Tsien won an international competition for the honor of designing this striking new structure. However, between the construction of the old and new Barnes, a long and nasty piece of litigation contested the relocation decision for many years.

Dr. Barnes’s “testator intent,” as embodied in a trust, was that the art collection would remain in the Merion building, specifically arranged and displayed according to his theory of “ensembles” or symmetrical presentations. Moreover, he mandated a very conservative investment policy and left control of the art to Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Pennsylvania. Insolvency loomed, and a coalition of foundations, the board, and other high-powered people and institutions wanted to relocate the museum to its present site. This was troubling to many, and the litigation was intense. It has also generated several books on the subject.

I recall a similar if more extreme case in St. Louis, while I was a law clerk at the Missouri Court of Appeals, in which a woman willed that her historic mansion, in the city’s elegant Central West End, be torn down. The courts overruled her explicit wishes in her will, and the building was left unscathed.

The present campus and building, and the re-creation of Dr. Barnes’s collection, in ensemble form, is exceptional in all respects. For a complete comparison of the Merion structure and the new Barnes museum, one should consult The Barnes Foundation: Two Buildings One Mission by David B. Brownlee of Penn. Ms. Huxtable described the new Barnes this way:

Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien practice a kinder, gentler modernism, with an enormous sensitivity to materials and textures, and a particular affinity for crafts….

Behind its entrance doors, the “new” Barnes is an uncorrupted, enhanced experience. The paintings are rehung in their original configurations, in rooms of the same size and proportions, the walls covered with burlap, windows facing south, as at Merion. If you look closely, you will see many small, subtle details that keep the building from being a life-less, born-dead replica. Every aspect of the design followed intensive study of the original architecture and the collection-for relevance, not reproduction. 

Consider this. The Main Room of the new Barnes gallery is, upon first viewing, truly stunning with Seurat’s Poseuses hanging above Czanne’s The Card Players and Matisse’s mural The Dance sprawling along the top of the main wall. Entering the gallery provides an aesthetic jolt not to be missed.

Wouldn’t you rather be in Philadelphia?

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.