The Barnes Foundation

An Artful Resolution

by David Masello

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects

When you visit Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, there is the art in the museum, and then there is the art of the museum. Both beckon simultaneously. Should you tire of the 181 Renoirs and sixty-nine Cézannes, the old masters and the post-Impressionists, the African masks and Pennsylvania German furniture, the wrought-iron sculptural hardware and the devotional sculpture from New Mexico that fill the twenty-four intimate gallery spaces, there is the building itself to admire, a kind of architectural sculpture newly placed on its urban plinth, as of May 2012.

Because of the building’s clever circulating floor plan, it’s easy to stray from the cocoons of those moody galleries, where light shifts throughout the day via clerestory windows, back into the museum’s Light Court, aka the "living room" of the institution, as the docents describe it. There, if you look closely at the interior walls, clad in Negev "Raman Gold" limestone, you’ll be able to pick out the prehistoric marine fossils that emerge from the textured rock. The leather-cushioned, low-slung couches positioned at right angles in the space look like something out of a Knoll showroom—and, indeed, they are manufactured by that venerable furniture firm, a Pennsylvania company, in keeping with the wishes of the designers and board members to use as many local purveyors as possible. The bolsters of those couches are wrapped in a geometrically hypnotic pattern by the master Senegalese weaver Aissa Dionee, while a sculptural metal gateway to the galleries harkens to other African woven patterns. Look everywhere but on the gallery walls, and you will find the art of stone-tile mosaics, silk and wool panels by the Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra, outdoor rooms so pristine they function as minimalist sculpture, and views into interior courtyards as intimate as terrariums.

Giorgio de Chirico, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, 1926

But given the chimes that sound throughout your stay, urging you, ever so subtly, to move along to make way for other visitors scheduled to visit at later times, you will need to make multiple visits to admire and take in the art of the building and on the walls. Indeed, those tones that sound are yet another indication of the experience and atmosphere of the museum. Just as there are the rules in art of two-point perspective drawing and those of proportion when depicting the human form, so, too, are there the rules of visiting the Barnes. Some tenets were dictated—and are religiously observed still—by the late Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951), the man who amassed what is described, by Neil L. Rudenstine, as "the greatest personal collection of post-Impressionist art in the world." Rudenstine, a board member of the museum and the former president of Harvard, is the author of The House of Barnes: The Man, The Collection, The Controversy (American Philosophical Society). While the public is heartily invited to visit the museum on its prominent 4.5-acre parcel along Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, it does feel, sometimes, as if you were an invited guest and a lucky one to have received the invitation. The moment you walk inside, an attendant will politely ask to see proof of your reservation. This feeling of exclusivity has nothing to do with the staff or docents on hand, all of whom seem welcoming and devoted. Rather, it’s as if the ghost of the ever-exacting Mr. Barnes were still haunting these galleries, albeit ones he never saw, as they were built after his death.

Part of the controversy alluded to in the subtitle of Rudenstine’s book refers to such stipulations as Barnes’s directives that only a certain number of people be allowed into the museum at any one time, that reservations be made in advance with firm time slots, and that the displayed artworks include only the most minimal of descriptive plaques (i.e., the name of the artist and nothing else). When touring the galleries, visitors can either don earphones to hear a guided tour of the works or consult printed texts that reveal the artist and name of the work, but little else. Of course, the Barnes is not the only museum in which minimal information is provided about each artwork on display. The Frick Collection in New York City is another. In fact, it’s a relief not to have to stand in place, shifting your balance, reading some art historian’s ponderings about the meaning of the painting before you. After all, if you are looking, for instance, at Vincent van Gogh’s The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin), from 1889, at the Barnes, what else do you really need to know? Sometimes the less information provided the better; it forces visitors to look more closely at a work—and remember what it is saying to them, rather than what someone else is telling them in written text. This is was what Barnes sought to do. This portrait of the artist’s friend, painted at Arles, pulses with warmth and energy.

Americans are not used to visiting art museums in which the works are hung salon-style, as they are in the Barnes. One of the few others to do so, though on a temporary basis, is the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a museum akin to the Barnes in that it reflects the collecting habits of a single individual. The Clark has reconfigured a sizeable portion of its collection into a single room while the museum undergoes extensive renovation and expansion. What the Clark’s salon-style grouping proves, in part, is that museums need not often expand as much as they do. A museum does not need acres of galleries, each named for a wealthy donor. If more museums hung works salon style, they might be better able to show more of their inventory, the vast majority of which is often stowed away for decades, if not centuries, in off-site warehouses. Everything Barnes collected is on view.

At the Barnes, the dense presentation results from the fact that the new facility replicates, in many subtle ways, the former museum building in Merion, Pennsylvania, a bucolic Main Line suburb just west of Philadelphia. There, when the facility was completed and dedicated in 1925, Barnes was meticulous in the way he arranged the art he continued to buy. Each wall of paintings and objects was a tableau in itself. It may appear to be a random, salon-style assemblage—juxtaposing an Amadeo Modigliani portrait like Young Redhead in an Evening Dress (1918) and Pennsylvania German furniture, decorative early-twentieth-century hardware and voluptuous Renoir women, French medieval saints and modern Glackens figures. In fact, the wall is a carefully articulated composition of complementing colors and figures and motifs. At the new facility, those arrangements of works are not only duplicated, but also hung in galleries that are of the same size, scale and lighting as those of the former building.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players (Les Joueurs de Cartes), 1890–92

As Rudenstine writes, Barnes "created his own landed kingdom in Merion, Pennsylvania—with its own cadre of devoted citizens, its own impressive habitat, and its own laws and bylaws. And, the entire province was…enclosed by a high surrounding fence to control entrance." While Rudenstine lauds Barnes for his exquisite collecting habits and his devotion to teaching art appreciation to his employees, he also points out the contradictions in character: "[Barnes] was in no sense an institutional person. His instincts were essentially autocratic: they were those of a self-made businessman whose small company proved very quickly to be immensely profitable and was easily managed."

Barnes made his fortune developing and manufacturing Argyrol, an over-the-counter antiseptic. Soon after founding the firm and factory that produced the solution, Barnes required his workers to attend a daily two-hour class discussion where they would examine great works of literature and art. He later bought adjacent acres of land near his home in Merion to establish an arboretum, to be used as a kind of living classroom of horticulture for his employees. "The initial ideas were democratic in nature," writes Rudenstine, "and the fundamental conviction was that all people—not simply a select few—were capable of understanding and responding to art." As a son of working-class parents, Barnes was an enlightened believer in "equal rights" for every person, notably African-Americans. And his embrace of social equality translated to his notions about African-American art. "Barnes had believed from his boyhood that African-Americans were endowed by nature with extraordinary artistic talent, and he often expressed his conviction that they were fully equal to whites in intelligence," writes Rudenstine. "He was the first American to acquire African sculpture in a serious way, and his collection is of high quality."

Paul Cézanne, Still Life (Nature Morte), 1892-94Despite his prescient embrace of civil rights for all and a belief in ready access to the fine arts, Barnes was known to be both an aggressive businessman and equally aggressive collector. As Rudenstine reveals, he would not "lend any of his works of art, except on the rarest occasions, no matter how important or worthy the cause. In this and other aspects, his faults were glaring, and his treatment of others often unforgiveable." As a social creature, Barnes was a kind of misfit. In his essay, "How to Judge a Painting," Barnes admits: "Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most very nice people. I can talk, without speaking, to Cézanne, Prendergast, Daumier, Renoir, and they talk to me in kind….Golf, dances, theaters, dinners, traveling, get a set-back as worthy diversions when the rabies or pursuit of quality in painting, and its enjoyments, gets into a man’s system. And when he has surrounded himself with that quality, bought with his blood, he is a King." A prime example of that quality is Paul Cézanne’s Still Life (1892–94), a highly structured arrangement of yellow and green apples under a swag of earth-colored drapery.

This self-proclaimed king—of both commerce and collecting—wanted his fiefdom to endure after his death (from a car accident in 1951). To ensure so, Barnes created something he called an "Indenture of Trust," a code of tenets and directives so complex that their legal ramifications resonate today. The document "seemed intended to control the use of the collection and the operations of his Foundation almost as firmly after his death as he himself had done during his lifetime," writes Rudenstine. The Indenture addressed everything from the precise salaries to be paid to employees to the admissions policy of his collection.

In a case as complicated and mired in legalities as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce (the fictional, decades-long lawsuit that forms the basis of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House), the decision to move the foundation from its original base in Merion to a new facility in Center City Philadelphia was fraught with contention and lawsuits. Most of those arguments and debates have subsided. Essentially, the drama resulted from mismanagement of the foundation, including actions by Lincoln University, a historically African-American institution in Chester, Pennsylvania, to whom Barnes had bequeathed considerable oversight. The endowment had dwindled, and expenses were rising. A new building, it was thought, would bring in far more visitors and make the foundation more accessible, as well as financially sound. That has proven to be true. (Initial attendance records reveal that, where the old facility attracted some 400 visitors three times a week, the new facility brings in some 800 visitors daily, six days per week.)

Vincent van Gogh, The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin), 1889

The reason it’s important to know part of this backstory is because much of the design of the new museum harkens to that saga. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (designers of other arts institutions, including the now-under-construction Whitney Museum of Art Downtown) fashioned a structure that they refer to as a "gallery within a garden and a garden with a gallery." While the artwork is contained within 12,000 square feet of interior space, situated on two levels, plus a mezzanine, the surrounding gardens are meant to echo Barnes’s original conception of the relationship between art and nature. He was intent on teaching art history to his students and employees, as well as horticulture—and keeping both disciplines in sight of one another. The husband-and-wife team of Williams and Tsien designed an exterior characterized by a kind of quilting of limestone panels—evocative of the arrangement of the artworks in the galleries, as well as an allusion to traditional African textiles, motifs that Barnes admired. In its rigorous use of reclaimed materials and embrace of natural elements—floors made of ipe wood from the Coney Island boardwalk, a study table made from a fallen tree in a Pennsylvania forest, an infiltration basin and irrigation system that gathers storm water, filtered natural light—the foundation is noted as the first American arts institution to merit a LEED platinum status (the highest possible Green designation).

The old Barnes was not the most comfortable place to visit. Parking and visiting hours were limited, few of the galleries contained any seating, and there were no on-site facilities for food or drink. The new building functions, in ways in which we expect all true arts facilities to do so, with dining areas and a gift shop, an auditorium and an exhibition gallery able to house rotating shows.

Not unlike the structures that line the Mall in Washington, D.C., this new museum has a presence on Benjamin Franklin Parkway that befits its neighbors—the imposing Philadelphia Museum of Art at the far northwest end, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Free Library. The moment visitors pass through the open "gates" of the museum—again, a nod to the actual gates at the Merion property—they come into contact with the elegant landscape design by the firm of OLIN—a contiguous arrangement of outdoor rooms and reflecting pools.

The most conspicuous element, though, is Ellsworth Kelly’s 40-foot-high minimalist sculpture The Barnes Totem, which had been commissioned and paid for by the Neubauer Family Foundation. The bead-blasted stainless steel work appears either like a bolt of lightning or a skewed punctuation point—either allusion appropriate to an institution within which are largely figurative works and which, long mired in controversy, has reached a final and inspiring resolution.

The Barnes Fondation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19130. Telephone (215) 278-7160. 

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1