The Barnes Foundation


Story: Franklyn Cantor
Photography: Franklyn Cantor
Friday, September 7, 2018

The Barnes Foundation, located in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is home to a tremendous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, along with various other styles and media.

Dr. Albert Barnes (1872-1951) was a Philadelphia-born scientist, who built a successful pharmaceutical company before turning his attention to art. His high school classmate, the American Impressionist William Glackens, connected him to the network of dealers and artists in Paris, and Barnes soon began traveling frequently to expand his collection. Barnes commissioned Paul Philippe Cret to design a building on his property for displaying his works, and developed a rigorous formalist philosophy for the examination and understanding of art.

Inside the galleries, the pieces are displayed in an uncommon manner, without regard for order by artist, era, style, or subject. Dr. Barnes’ approach emphasized symmetry, and situating works of various media in close proximity to enable a continuous dialogue. Eschewing placards and labels in favor of informational pamphlets in each gallery, the Barnes invites comparisons and contrasts between the neighboring paintings, metalwork, sculpture, furniture, and decorative objects. These arrangements, which Dr. Barnes called “ensembles”, were individually and iteratively developed by the collector himself. It is altogether unusual and fascinating to trace a particular concept – say, the use of red, or strong diagonal emphasis – across completely different forms created hundreds of years apart, and is a testimony both to the evolution and consistent value of art. Don’t let this approach intimidate you, though; the collection is designed just as much (if not more) for those folks who have no familiarity with art or art history, as it is for connoisseurs.

Like other collections assembled by a single collector, the Barnes Foundation is defined by the vision of its benefactor. The Foundation has not purchased or de-accessioned any works since Barnes’ death, nor have the ensembles changed in any way. The intimate gallery viewing experience has changed little since 1951 – which is just one aspect that makes the Barnes a unique and fun place to visit.

In 2012, the Foundation re-located from its original location outside of the city, and is now in the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural center (in fact, the Rodin Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art are just a short walk away). The new building has space for public and private events, but more importantly, a rotating exhibition space. In a place where the permanent collection is so fixed, it’s exciting to have a space for new content.

With significant concentrations in Renoir (181), Cézanne (69), Matisse (59), and Picasso (46), along with many works by Modigliani, Soutine, Rousseau, Degas, de Chirico, Van Gogh, and Seurat, this sizeable and unusual collection is an important destination.

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