A Recent Visit to the New Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia
One is in awe after visiting the new building and relocation of this exceptional art collection, one of the best amassed by a private US collector, Dr. Albert Barnes, of some of the best paintings of powerhouse artists of the Impressionists and Early Modern era. In the beginning of the last century, Dr. Barnes and a German chemist, Hermann Hille, devised the formula for Argyrol, from which Barnes made a fortune. He bought out his partner in 1907 and became the CEO of the pharmaceutical A.C. Barnes Company (which he would sell very profitably in 1929, before the great crash). Much of his profits he used wisely to gather one of the best private art collections in the world. Recently Sondra and I traveled to Philadelphia mainly to see this collection in its new surroundings (moved to a new building in downtown Philadelphia in 2012 from its original suburban location in Merion, PA). We were not disappointed.
First of all, the new building, amounting to a new and major small museum, is stunningly simple and beautiful. Designed by an architect couple, Tod Williams & Billie Tsien, it has minimalist coherency with emphasis on its natural elements, both architectural, horticultural, and material. And, as in all good works of art, it has some delightful surprises, such as this:
There is a reflecting pool along the front facade that is only a few inches deep, whose bottom is filled immaculately with slate gray river rocks, providing an almost Zen-like quality of silent contemplation. This pool is repeated in the entrance vestibule. But here, circumventing the edge of the pool, is a statement by Dr. Barnes, cast in bronze, made to start the visitors’ mind to work in the proper direction to receive what is offered inside:
“THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE WORLD TO ME HAS ALWAYS BEEN A FREE SPONTANEOUS EXPRESSION OF HUMAN NATURE — WHETHER IN A THOUGHT, A SYMPHONY, A POEM, A PAINTING, A STATUE OR AN ACT OF EVERYDAY LIFE THAT SHOWS THE QUALITIES OF MIND, HEART AND SOUL WHICH, IN MY OPINION, ARE THE INDISPENSABLES IN ANY WORK OF ART”.
— Dr. Albert Barnes 1925
The collection of paintings, sculptures, and well crafted objects inside certainly offer these “free and spontaneous expressions of human nature” which embody very lofty “qualities of mind, heart and soul”. Dr. Barnes’ foresight was nothing short of incredible.
From the Barnes Foundation website:
The Barnes Foundation was established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” The Barnes holds one of the finest collections of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings, with extensive works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Giorgio de Chirico, as well as American masters Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Horace Pippin and Maurice Prendergast, Old Master paintings, important examples of African sculpture and Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles, American paintings and decorative arts and antiquities from the Mediterranean region and Asia. The Barnes Foundation’s Art and Aesthetics programs engage a diverse array of audiences. These programs, occurring at the Philadelphia campus, online, and in Philadelphia communities, advance the mission through progressive, experimental and interdisciplinary teaching and learning.
THE BARNES FOUNDATION’S NEW BUILDING & ELLSWORTH KELLY SCULPTURE
Some of the best paintings of Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat and other Impressionist and Early Modern artists are here in this collection. One is overwhelmed by this body of art works. One’s mind is blown to think that primarily one man put together this artistic offering (now valued well over 25 billion dollars in today’s art market), then miraculously left it into perpetuity for the enhancement and artistic enlightenment of the public. That is true philanthropy.
Here are some of the masterpieces it contains:
The Barnes collection presents painting at its best, and in a way that people can make contact with the creative spirit inside of themselves. Too often art is presented in an intimidating, high minded’ aloofness which boggles the viewers into thinking there is some great gulf of separation between recognized art masterpieces and their own immutable creative spirit. Dr. Barnes wanted to bridge that gap and give something to the common person, which could elevate them out of the doldrums of low self esteem and limited thinking, and put them in contact with new possibilities of their own creativity.
Any visit to this cultural masterpiece, the Barnes Foundation museum and collection, which provides an exceptional ART LOOK for the people, is going to be uplifting. Just the building itself is remarkable. The spaciousness of the great room outside the entrance to the collection is a breathtaking combination of light, natural materials of limestone and huge woolen woven panels, and a cathedral-like proportion that accomplishes a spiritual preparation for the art pilgrim to receive the gifts of the art works inside.
THE GREAT ROOM
The new Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway of Philadelphia is a jewel in the crown of this fair city’s cultural heritage. Undoubtedly, it is is a tribute to a CEO of a corporation, Dr. Albert Barnes, who had the undaunted vision to put his money to work for the expression of the best the Human Spirit has to offer. He did not stop short. Let this new Barnes Foundation be the only testimonial needed to prove that art in corporations can be the crowing glory of any humanistic commercialized venture when its own head has the foresight to enrich, not merely employ, those people around him/her who enhance and enable his/her good fortune.
— Markus Ray, Nashville, AUG. 2014