A few weeks ago, I drove to Philadelphia to visit the Barnes Foundation. The art museum is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Barnes stays true to its foundational roots and offers classes, “to promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” Within the walls of the museum visitors can view over 3,000 artworks. The collection includes an impressive 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and 7 Van Goghs amongst their vast impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist holdings. The pieces in the permanent collection are not displayed in the familiar layout one encounters in traditional art museums.
At the Barnes, viewers engage with ensembles, in over 20 rooms. These ensembles are, “symmetrical wall compositions organized according to the plastic means of light, line, color, and space rather than by time period, nationality, style, or genre.” In addition, Barnes incorporated furniture and ironworks into the gallery, to complement the assemblages.
Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) amassed a sizable fortune through his medical practice. One of his most widely successful creations, Argyrol, was a topical drug utilized in the early 20th century. The antiseptic prevented blindness and other eye infections in infants. He decided to invest his newfound wealth in the visual arts. Barnes rekindled his friendship with former Philadelphia Central High School classmate and artist, William J. Glackens. Barnes and Glackens came to an arrangement where Glackens would travel to Europe and purchase artworks on behalf of the collector. Barnes also purchased African art and paintings by American artists such as William J. Glackens (no surprise) Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Pendergast.
On March 19, 1925 the Barnes Foundation opened its doors. Paul Cret designed the building which housed the collection as well as Mr. and Mrs. Barnes’ residence in the quiet suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania. Barnes sold the A.C. Barnes Company in 1929 to commit his time and energy to the development of the Foundation.
The Barnes Foundation moved to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the suburbs eight years ago. The rooms where the permanent collection is housed replicate the interiors found at Merion. In an effort to be as accurate as possible, designers measured every room down to 1/16th of an inch.
My day trip to the Barnes marked my first time back to Philadelphia since the onset of Covid-19. The staff put safety guidelines into effect to safeguard the health and wellbeing of all guests. Some examples include, timed ticket entry, temperature check, and mandatory face masks inside the building. I was pleasantly surprised by how efficient the check-in process was. Unlike my trips to other museums, a computer took my temperature as I walked in, and I scanned my emailed-ticket at the entrance. As I entered the different galleries, I was also required to scan this ticket, so staff could monitor the number of people in a space at a given time. Throughout my visit I found that the Barnes did an exemplary job observing the capacity of the institution’s space – even in the gift shop!
This was not my first trip to the Barnes. I visited the institution on several occasions before Covid-19. Therefore, several changes in the permanent collection’s galleries caught my eye. A one-way flow of traffic is now mapped out and signs are posted listing the capacity of each room. While I understand the rationale behind this, I had to walk a roundabout way through several rooms to view pieces I had missed through my first walkthrough.
Another notable absence was the lack of the laminated cards, containing information relating to the paintings in the permanent collection. These cards act as my “cheat sheets” when I want to know more information about a specific piece in the gallery. However, the staff mentioned that guests could utilize a software program that they developed in 2019. The Barnes Focus Digital Guide (Barnesfoc.us) enables viewers to “scan” an artwork with their smartphone and information relating to the painting instantly appears on the screen. In addition, the guide also contains facts about the artists, Dr. Barnes, and insights into the ensembles throughout the collection.
Earlier this week, Philadelphia announced its latest coronavirus restrictions – the closure of museums until January. I am very disappointed by this judgement call. Especially, because I felt so safe in an institution that is directly impacted by this new mandate. On November 17th, the Barnes issued a statement regarding their closure.
Even though the Barnes is closed until January 2nd, you can still find ways to engage with their art. The Barnes has an incredibly detailed way of presenting their collection online. If you want to #MuseumFromHome, I highly recommend utilizing this resource. You can zoom-in on the pieces themselves, and view the overall ensemble on a given gallery wall.
Barnes Takeout is another resource that the foundation started during the initial spring shutdown. In these brief videos, the museum’s scholars, curators, and educators take a close look at a piece in the collection. New episodes are added every Friday to their YouTube channel. You can watch them on your lunch break or if you want to tune into something other than the news. Personally, I have watched my fair share of these videos, and crafted a list of items I want to see in person once the museum reopens.
Even during COVID, The Barnes stays true to its foundational roots and continues to offer (virtual) educational classes. Neubauer Family Executive Director and President Thom Collins said, “Dr. Barnes felt it was his privilege and responsibility to enrich the lives of others by inviting them to experience firsthand the transformative power of great works of art…” Students, both past and present, increase their understanding of the collection and the traditions of art through Barnes’ objective analysis, which encourages visual engagement with objects in the collection. I have taken two courses through the Foundation. Both expanded my knowledge of art history and the rich history of the Barnes as a whole.
I highly recommend #SeeingTheBarnes once they reopen. The world renowned institution boasts an impressive permanent collection, and innovative rotating exhibitions. I visited their temporary exhibition, “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” in 2019, and it instilled a long-lasting appreciation for Morisot as a female artist defying social norms in the name of her craft and enabled me to come face to face with intimate, maternal images that I mused about previously on this website.
- The Barnes Foundation gift shop came out with several maskerpieces which highlight art within their collection. They are available for purchase online.
- Dr. Barnes once owned a painting by Berthe Morisot. He sold “Young Woman with a Straw Hat” and it now resides in The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Barnes, Albert C. The Art in Painting, 3rd ed. Merion: The Barnes Foundation, 1936.
“Barnes Foundation Builds on Founding Vision with Expanded Education Program.” The Barnes Foundation.
*All photographs were taken by the author*