A visit from an out-of-town Jesuit friend whom I hadn’t seen in years provided the excuse recently to experience the newest jewel in our city’s cultural crown – the freshly minted “Philadelphiacampus” of the Barnes Foundation, which opened to the public on May 19. It would be hard to live in Philadelphia and not to know about the legal hue and cry which surrounded the building of this new facility and the relocation of the priceless art collection from its original Merion home which Barnes had built for it in 1922; but I like to think that, on the whole, Mr. Barnes would be pretty pleased with how things have turned out.
The son of a butcher, Barnes attended Central High School. He then worked his way (as a tutor, an amateur boxer, and a semi-professional baseball player) through college and medical school at theUniversityofPennsylvania, becoming a medical doctor at the age of 20. He opted not to practice, however, instead pursuing a career as a research chemist. In 1899, working with a German chemist named Hille, he developed a silver nitrate antiseptic solution which proved effective in treating gonorrhea. Marketed by Barnes with considerable business savvy under the name Argyrol, the drug made its inventor a millionaire by the age of 30.
Shortly thereafter, Barnes began to study and collect art. He reconnected with hisCentralHigh Schoolchum, William Glackens – now an up-and-coming painter living in Paris – and Barnes sent Glackens $20,000 (in 1911!) with instructions to buy some “modern” French paintings for him. Glackens selected and procured the twenty paintings which would become the foundational core of the Barnes Collection.
Barnes himself visited Paris in 1912 – the international font of creativity which attracted so many great artists and writers from America, as celebrated in Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris,” and also in the first Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) during spring 2011. While there, Barnes rubbed elbows with Gertrude and Leo Stein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. In the 1920s, Barnes befriended Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume, who introduced the American collector to the works of Modigliani, de Chirico, and Soutine, among others. Armed with a keen eye for artistic talent and prescient tastes, and fortunate enough to have lots of money when others were losing theirs during the Great Depression, Barnes was able to collect many masterworks at what were effectively bargain prices.
The collection today has some 2500 pieces, including 69 Cézannes (more than all the museums in Paris combined!), 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 181 Renoirs. The total worth is currently estimated at some 25 billion dollars! My Jesuit friend, who is an art history professor and a museum director – and therefore well aware of the Barnes Collection long before he had the chance to view it – could not say enough about the unequalled richness of the museum’s holdings. The veteran of thirty years of professional study in fine arts, my confrere pronounced our visit to be “one of my most memorable and satisfying art days ever.”
For myself, a large part of my joy in the visit came from the more-than-excellent audio guide; I can’t encourage you enough, when you go, to invest in the extra five dollars it will cost you to rent this little educational gem (free for museum members). It offers two tours: a “masterpiece tour” (which my Jesuit friend and I followed) and a “family tour.” It was no great surprise that this amateur art lover’s experience was hugely enriched and deepened by the variety of expert voices who weigh in on the guide, elucidating not only the artworks themselves, but also the cultural contexts of their creation, their initial reception, and so on. But I was not expecting it when my friend, the professional art historian, announced: “I learned more about Cézanne here this afternoon than I had in my entire career up till now…”
As you have no doubt read or heard, the new building displays the collection in a faithful replication of the interior space of the original “Merion campus.” Thus it replicates Mr. Barnes’ famously quirky “ensembles” which combine paintings, metalwork, sculpture, and decorative arts of diverse periods, cultures, styles, and genres. (The current display represents the final disposition of the ensembles at the time of Barnes’ death in 1951. Apparently he frequently rearranged them for more than a quarter of a century…) Again thanks to the audio guide, by the end of my visit, I began to grasp some of the aesthetic and educational principles which guided Barnes in creating the ensembles, and to see the “method in his madness.” (Slightly scary!) My confrere and I were both also very taken with the beauty of the new building and its grounds. (Again, the audio guide is a great help in appreciating the vision and the achievement of the architects,New Yorkbased Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.) I’m not sure how else to encapsulate the experience other than to say that the whole place has outstanding “feng shui.” Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for “Vanity Fair,” has characterized the facility as “soulful, self-assured, and soaked with light.” Once you step into the exterior landscaping, particularly after you enter the enclosed courtyard with its gently trickling reflecting pools, you will experience a tangible sense of peace and harmony – or at least, I did. I had to keep reminding myself that theBenjamin Franklin Parkwaywas just a stone’s throw away.
The lofty, softly lit “Annenberg Court” provides further “transition space” once inside the building – and the architects explain that they consciously intended this great open interior hall to serve as a place both to prepare for viewing the collection and to “decompress” afterwards. (For my money, it works!) Lastly, while the galleries faithfully replicate the interior rooms and dimensions of the Merion building, subtle improvements to the lighting – a computerized mix of natural and artificial light which “adjusts” as the available exterior light changes – display the art to better advantage while also better protecting it from the ravages of time.
Unlike my Jesuit colleague, I had seen the collection at least three or four times before over the years, beginning in the late 80s when I was assigned at St. Joseph’s University and had the “Merion campus” almost literally in my backyard. But I never enjoyed any of those visits nor appreciated the collection half as much as I did at the new location last week. Invite an out-of-town friend to visit. Find some excuse. But go. I guarantee you will meet visitors from all over the world who have come toPhiladelphiaprimarily to savor this “new old” treasure of ours…
© 2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.