This fabulous Matisse painting is one of the first things you see when you walk into the Barnes Foundation, home to a feast of over 4,000 incredible works of art. I was there last week, swooning like a drunken sailor. I think Matisse had great fun painting this Moroccan man and I had great fun taking it in.
Albert Barnes made a fortune inventing and manufacturing a new antiseptic. It was a time when the world’s greatest painters were madly churning out new works in Europe and selling cheap to pay the rent.
Barnes deeply loved good art and took advantage of his wealth and the artists’ bargain prices, amassing one of the finest collections of art in the world. We’re talking a staggering 181 Renoirs and 69 Cezannes, not to mention the Van Goghs, Degas, Picassos, Manets, Rousseaus and Toulouse Lautrec.
Barnes had great affinity for African Americans and, in the face of popular prejudice, employed many of them in his factory.
Astoundingly, every day for 2 hours he stopped all production, assembled his entire workforce and, using paintings from his brilliant collection, taught them about art. He also had them all reading philosophy and engaging in lively, spirited philosophical discussions.
In 1922 he purchased 12 rich acres on the Main Line right outside Philadelphia, a land of old-money mansions. He built a beautiful home and a gorgeous building to house his fabulous collection, where he offered free art appreciation classes.
After his death, and numerous law suits demanding public access to his astounding assemblage of great art, his family was reluctantly forced to open the collection to the public or face severe tax and legal implications. Keep in mind this is a very beautiful and affluent residential neighborhood, so you can imagine how the neighbors felt about masses of non-residents invading their secluded street.
When I first visited, a law suit had compelled the Barnes to expand its hours to 2 ½ days a week. The number of visitors was strictly limited and you had to make reservations way in advance. The family was clearly unhappy about it all and you had to ignore, or in my case sympathize with, their chilly reception when you arrived. They were most unhelpful if you had any questions.
The city of Philadelphia managed to wrest the collection from it’s intended home in the affluent suburbs and it now resides downtown, making it much easier access for everyone, and way more livable for the neighbors. The incredible story of the battle to make this happen is documented in the film called, “The Art of the Steal”, one of those movies that’s stranger than fiction, especially because it’s true.
Barnes was an opinionated, pigheaded, stubborn individualist and I’m glad of it. The way he displayed his art is radically different from the way any other museum does it.
Most museums put all the Renoirs in one room, the Van Goghs in another, the Medieval art in yet another, etc.
Not Barnes. One wall will have a variety of different artists displaying the same theme so you can compare what they’re communicating and how they’re saying it.
For example, in this room the two main walls have 22 Renoirs and 11 Cezannes.
This is Cezanne‘s portrait of his wife.
This is Renoir’s portrait of his mistress.
Very different kinds of love.
Here you see Renoir’s Bathers and right above, Cezanne’s.
It’s not a matter of choosing favorites. That wasn’t Barne’s point. What you want to do is see the similarities and differences and appreciate each for what it is.
As stern as she was, Cezanne painted his wife numerous times, more than any other model. She was his lifelong partner. And clearly his painting captures an intense expression of feeling there.
Barnes really mixes it up bringing eclectic pieces together. He even does the unthinkable and sometimes puts African art right between a Toulouse Lautrec and a Matisse.
He was a big Matisse fan (displaying 59 of his paintings to be exact) and so am I.
Here’s Matisse starting work on a commissioned mural he had initially turned down but then agreed to paint because he was financially strapped.
This mural is right across the room from Barnes’ favorite Renoir – a Bathers painting. Matisse intentionally echoed the rounded form of the bather on the right who is stepping up in Renoir’s painting in his own mural.
I don’t know how many visits I’ve made to the Barnes over the years. It draws me to its provocative rooms like a sublime magnet. The art is magnificent. Aesthetic euphoria takes over my universe. A happy, drunken state that reaches deep into my soul and lasts for weeks.
May you find a treasure trove of art that nourishes your soul with aesthetic elation.