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Legendary art collection opens its doors

The Barnes Foundation invites the public to see its great masterpieces for the first time

Created date

January 22nd, 2013
The Barnes Foundation art collection

Painter Henri Matisse once said, “The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America.” Matisse knew what he was talking about since the Barnes owned 59 of his works, including the seminal Bonheur de vivre (Joy of Life) and The Dance, a work commissioned by foundation founder Dr. Albert C. Barnes.

With 181 works by Renoir (more than can be found in the entire city of Paris); 69 works by Cézanne; 46 by Picasso; and masterpieces by the likes of Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Modigliani, it’s clear this collection is not to be missed. However, despite Matisse’s high praise and the unique and unmatched depth of the Barnes Foundation’s collection, it has only recently opened its doors to the general public when in May 2012, the Barnes moved to a beautiful new building in downtown Philadelphia, Pa.

Prior to that, what has been called the largest and most important collection of modern and post impressionistic art in the world was locked away and out of view to the general public in a residential neighborhood in the suburban town of Merton, Pa. The story behind how the Barnes Foundation moved from the suburbs to the city and from being available to only a select group of art students to becoming available to the general public is almost as captivating as the art.

A collection is born

Albert C. Barnes grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. Smart and ambitious, Barnes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1892, and later worked for a local pharmaceutical company. It was there that Barnes and a colleague co-invented the silver-based antiseptic Argyrol, a preparation used to treat gonorrhea in adults and to prevent gonorrheal blindness in newborns. Argyrol quickly became a wonder drug and it made Barnes an extremely wealthy man.

His newfound fortune allowed Barnes to explore his many interests, including art. Driven by the belief that art should be available to the poor and disenfranchised, Barnes built his collection for the common man and established an art school for young artists who learned in the shadow of Barnes’ increasingly impressive collection.

Barnes also believed that the work of a common craftsman was as beautiful and important as the work of the world’s most revered artists, so alongside his Renoir and Picasso masterpieces, he hung utilitarian metalworks. He kept his collection private, only allowing the foundation art students and invited guests to see it. It is said that Barnes turned away many celebrity requests to view his collection, while happily welcoming plumbers or other laborers who expressed an interest in art.

Final wishes

Barnes was killed suddenly and tragically in an automobile crash in 1952. At the time of his death, he left what he believed to be an iron clad will stipulating that “[a]ll paintings shall remain in exactly the places they are at the time of the death of Donor and his said wife.” This directive kept the foundation running as Barnes envisioned it for many years.

Recently, however, the foundation’s financial stability prompted its board of directors to consider moving the collection and making it available to the general public. To many longtime artists and supporters of the Barnes, any change in how the foundation operated was seen as a rebuke of Barnes’ will. They formed a group called Friends of the Barnes to try and protect and preserve Barnes’ vision. The long and arduous court battle that ensued is documented in the 2009 film, The Art of the Steal, a fascinating look at the power plays and politics behind moving the Barnes from the suburbs to the city.

The new home of the Barnes

The new museum is unlike any other. To honor Barnes’ wishes, the 12,000-square-foot gallery replicates the dimensions and shapes of the original Merion spaces as well as the founder’s conception of a visual interplay between art and nature.

While it’s a matter of debate whether or not the new museum remains true to the final wishes of Barnes, there is no question that the public has embraced the opportunity to experience his amazing collection. Demand for tickets is so high that, on many days, there are no walk-up tickets available. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance at Admission is $18 and $15 for seniors. Due to the unique arrangement of the collection (there are no wall plates identifying the works), a docent-led tour is highly recommended. Tours cost $40. There is also an audio tour available for rent. The Barnes Foundation is open daily except for Tuesdays.

For more information, call 215-278-7200.