It’s going … going … almost gone

Molly Grace

“There was a Renoir next to a Picasso, next to an African bas-relief, next to a Cézanne, next to a Matisse, next to an ancient Greek sculpture from 2000 B.C., next to a piece of Northern Renaissance religious art, all surrounded by small metal workings that looked like forks.”

Such was my (failed) attempt to relate the awe-inspiring effect produced by my visit to the Barnes Foundation. Finally, I gave up. “You just have to come see it with me, Mom. It’s too hard to describe in words.”

While the experience was indescribable, I will try my best to relate my Friday afternoon sojourn into arguably one of the most unique art collections on the East Coast, in the hopes that more students will take advantage of the living museum of art that is literally in our backyard … before it is too late.

I heard about the Barnes Foundation over a year ago, making my visit this past Friday more than a year overdue. The Barnes Foundation is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern paintings, with an impressive amount of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (181), Paul Cézanne (69), Henri Matisse (59), Pablo Picasso (46) and Chaim Soutine (21). The collection also includes pieces by Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Degas, van Gogh, Seurat, Manet and Monet.

The Barnes is like no other art museum. The museum is, as I mentioned earlier, a home. Located just 10 minutes away – just past St. Joseph’s University – the works of art are (for now) housed in a gallery which is attached to the home of their original purchaser, Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Under the influence of his close friend John Dewey, Barnes established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to promote the nondiscriminatory advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.

Barnes’ philosophy of what comprised fine art, however, was innovative and visionary. At first glance, his walls look like a patchwork quilt, a hodgepodge of pieces from various centuries and of various themes that seem to be more opposite than similar. The 19th and 20th century works of European masters are woven in and out of almost any artwork imaginable, including African sculpture; Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles; Asian prints; and statues from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Even the Old Masters (El Greco, Rubens and Titian) and Medieval works make an appearance.

American artwork is not neglected, either, as paintings by Charles Demuth, William Glackens and Maurice and Charles Prendergast complement the American and European decorative metalwork scattered throughout the house.

A self-made man from Philadelphia with working-class beginnings, Barnes used his financial success of an antiseptic silver compound that he and his partner, German scientist Herman Hille, developed in 1902 to pursue his interest in the arts. Always respectful of the common man, he placed his artwork in his factory and established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to promote art education for all.

The artwork remains in Barnes’ self-arranged “wall ensembles,” which highlight the continuum of aesthetic traditions throughout all periods and cultures. As an out-spoken advocate of African-American social justice, Barnes was especially fond of promoting African art as a major genre that deserved just as much respect as all other masterpieces.

As overwhelming as the 23 rooms of art are, the artwork was only a piece of my Barnes’ experience. While half of my friends elected to do the audio tour, the other half of us walked through on our own and used the extra time to explore the 12-acre arboretum on which the gallery is situated. The pink, red, white and yellow roses in the picturesque rose garden were still in bloom. We’ve already planned a trip in the spring when the perennial gardens, lilac groves and trees (including a monkey puzzle tree) will be in bloom.

Due to stipulations set in Barnes will, the gallery is open only three days a week, with a limit of 400 visitors per day. Get some friends, pick a date a month or two in an advance and call soon.

As the collection will be moving to the Parkway in Philadelphia’s museum district at a yet-to-be determined date (despite Barnes explicit instructions in his will that the paintings were never to be moved), I recommend going before you miss your chance at seeing the art in its original home.