Moving through the Barnes Foundation, you feel immersed in a complete work of art, as you do when deep in the nave of a Gothic cathedral. The Barnes seems wonderfully timeless and out of place. The world and the works of art are in sync. Mature trees can be viewed through tall windows—the arcs of their branches echoing pictures’ arabesques. The only sounds are of the occasional bird outside, the measured movements of a handful of visitors, the creak of old parquet beneath your feet. Artworks flirt and flit. Parts of paintings, like flashes of jewels or glimpses of flesh, pull and lure you from one to the next.
No matter how much you know about the Barnes Foundation—no matter how often you’ve been told that it houses the most important collection of Impressionist, Postimpressionist, and early Modern art in the world—nothing, especially its deceptively small scale, prepares you for the experience inside the museum.
First, there is the artwork itself. The catalogue is staggering. Albert Barnes acquired Old Master paintings by Canaletto, Goya, Hals, El Greco, Titian, and Veronese and important examples of ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Medieval, Native American, African, Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern art. Then there is the collection of Modern European works. One of the largest in existence, it includes pictures by Chagall, de Chirico, Daumier, Dufy, Gauguin, Klee, Marquet, Miró, Pissarro, Puvis de Chavannes, Redon, Rouault, Signac, and Sisley. Barnes bought 11 works by Degas, seven by van Gogh, six by Seurat, four Manets, and four Monets. He purchased 18 Rousseaus and 46 Picassos. Barnes acquired 21 pictures by Soutine (whom he discovered). And it is no exaggeration to say that if you have not been to the Barnes, you have not seen Matisse, Cézanne, or, especially, Renoir. The collection holds 59 Matisses, 69 Cézannes, and a definitive 181 Renoirs. Barnes loved Renoir’s miraculous late nudes—paintings whose rotund volumes and luminous flesh are as erotically charged as those of Rubens and Titian. And at the Barnes Foundation, where Rubens is stationed next to Renoir, who is in earshot of Matisse, Titian, and Bonnard, such comparisons are self-evident.
Yet the magnificence of the foundation is much greater than the sum of its masterpieces. The installation puts the nature and language—the very life—of art above any single work. Packed wall-to-wall, the collection is hung salon-style, without regard for the trappings of -isms, periods, or styles. Barnes, who oversaw every detail of the museum’s creation, intermixed the past with the present and organized pictures and objects visually and thematically into ensembles. He created an environment that erased the business-as-usual distinctions between classical and primitive; ancient and modern; among applied, decorative, and fine arts. Paintings, drawings, and prints elbow one another as if to stand out from the crowd. And they are surrounded by other captivating objects, including ironwork, textiles, pewter, pottery, African masks, Navajo rugs, turquoise jewelry, medieval carvings, illuminated manuscripts, early American furniture, and American folk art—yet another of Barnes’s pioneering enthusiasms. Here, in this living museum where plastic formal values are made paramount, nothing is supplemental or taken for granted; everything is in chorus and plays its part.
Albert Coombs Barnes (1872–1951) believed that the chief value of a democratic society is that it enables every individual the unique opportunity to better himself culturally and spiritually. He thought the key to self-awareness is the study of art, philosophy, music, and literature. Driven by his love of art and ideas, he created a new species of museum. Barnes was not interested in amassing an art collection to bolster his ego or to impress his friends. Although he collected a wide array of art and artifacts, he was not interested in creating an encyclopedic or national collection like that of the then-burgeoning Metropolitan Museum of Art. And although he was a passionate advocate of the European avant-garde (Barnes wrote extensive critical monographs on Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse), he was not primarily concerned, as was the Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929), with introducing that group of artists to the American public. Barnes’s interest was in the living nature of artworks. He set up dialogues among works of various periods and diverse styles to emphasize similarities where most museums emphasize the distinctions. Barnes understood that the ancient Greeks, Titian, Rubens, Renoir, and Matisse, far from disconnected, are links in the chain.