A view of the art in the new Barnes Foundation Building in Philadelphia
For an intimate view of one of the best collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art there is no better place than the Barnes Foundation. Along with the Frick Museum in New York, which is full of old masters in a neo-classical mansion, the Barnes provides an era appropriate setting to view some of the greatest painting of the this late 19th century early 20th century time. The requirement that the Barnes collection be installed in manner as it was installed in the old Barnes Foundation building in Merion, Pennslyvania makes an odd combination with its new modern design facility, but only slightly diminishes the view of the art as Albert Barnes wanted it viewed. The old foundation building was a beaux-arts mansion in which Barnes hung his collection to his own taste. Multiple paintings are installed on the walls of each room in closer proximity than is modern style of separating each work by a lot of wall space. Paintings are hung one over the other salon style, which along with the flanking paintings, the inclusion of antique Pennsylvania furniture and the wrought iron work beside and sometimes above the artwork, creates a whole ensemble of each wall.
I found myself liking this arrangement and in only one instance was I troubled by the upper placement of a painting. Above Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players of 1890 is positioned George Seurat’s Poseuses (Models) of 1886-1888. You can’t get close to this painting to see the marvelous pattern of colored dots that Seurat created. However flanking the Cezanne’s Card Player are two smaller Cezannes, a nude and a table top arrangement. Going back and forth between these paintings you can experience the development of this great artist as he becomes more and more adept at placing paint. Barnes’ insistence on placing the paintings so close together allows not only the comparison of paintings by one artist, but the scrutiny of paintings by different artists of the same era side by side. You can see how each handled the paint and the development of form. This is a lovely way to experience art, which makes the separation between the artist and the viewer less absolute. Along with the color of the walls and the inclusion of other things makes the Barnes collection feel home like. The art can be felt as a part of everyday life, and not an isolated masterpiece unattainable and preserved in an institution of culture.
There are so many marvelous paintings in this collection, it is hard to single out any thing favorite. Along with the Cezanne’s and the Seurat, there are several Van Gogh’s of Note, especially his portrait of the postman, an engaging Henri Rousseau, a breathtaking Degas drawing of dancers, and three Matisse painting, which I stared at for quite some time. Most of these works are familiar to anyone who has taken a course in art history, or pursued a greater knowledge of these painters. The surprise for me was a Claude Monet of 1876, titled Le Bateau Atelier. I had never seen a reproduction or any reference to this work, which seemed to me to be a transitional piece moving away from his hayfields and dissolving Rouen Cathedral paintings toward the subtle color and almost abstract studies of his gardens and ponds. The boat in which the artist sits is rendered like an impressionist image, but the trees and the water have become indicative marks and squiggles rendered in pale hues of green, blue, and touches of pink. The painting is loose, free, and confident. Monet’s visions always intrigue.
There were elements of the Barnes collection that I thoroughly disliked.
Renoirs were everywhere. Barnes collected them in troves. I Renoirs paintings. His mature style of fleshy nudes is impressionism at its worst and there are lots of them. They are sentimental, sugary, and ultimately vacuous. Big nudes in pillow pink are nestled background of nausecous greens. a popular style and kept repeating it year after year. I was surprised that Barnes didn’t gag on the motif, but Barnes started collecting Renoirs early on before he became the purveyor of this artistic , and interestingly the visitor can see the evolution of this artist into his final mature style. I found a few canvases that I thought weren’t revolting. They were early works when I think his career could have taken a different course, and maybe he could have become as good as Monet. Of course this is personal opinion. When I visited the new Barnes it was the Renoirs which seemed to draw the most attention.
What I most liked about the Barnes collection was that like the Renoirs there were many works, which were not the pure style or were not the best works of the great artists displayed in the collection. There were lesser Matisse’s, Cezannes, Picasso’s, Modiliani’s, Soutaine’s, a Seurat of 1885 Two Sail Boats at Grandcamp, and works by others. Yet seeing these lesser works in the context of other masterpieces by the same artist, humanized the artists for me. They could and perhaps often did create work that didn’t achieve the quality nor the vision in their best work. Matisse could have a bad day. I enjoyed seeing that. I could go back and forth from these lesser works to the greater works and see what made them the difference. Often the color was less vibrant or the form more tentative in the lesser work, while the brush work became more confidant, and the forms more realized or abstact in the better work. This for me was the great surprise, and delight of the Barnes Foundation.