How an Eccentric Chemist Amassed One of the World’s Best Art Collections

Earlier this month, Adam and visited Philadelphia to catch the final days of a Matisse exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And it was very good, especially seeing all of the what I call “women seated in fabulously colorful chairs.” Mark my words, one day I will design a room inspired by a Matisse painting. I brought a print home with me, tried to get it professionally framed, realized framing in America is super duper expensive, and put it in an off-the-shelf frame from Michaels. It’s hanging above a chair I brought from Algeria and adds some color to an otherwise monochrome living room in our Princeton rental.

A Philly-based friend who we met up for the exhibit said “If you like Mattise, you better go to the Barnes.” Matisse is by far my favorite artist, and so we went to the Barnes Foundation. I cannot stop thinking about this place and the man who collected and meticulously curated more amazing art in once place than I’ve ever seen in my life. Yes, to me the the Barnes Foundation is more impressive than the Louvre, better than my beloved Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, better than the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The intimate, encompassing and inspiring vibe somewhat matches that of the museum that was directly across from our Madrid apartment, which was the home and studio of impressionist painter Joaquín Sorolla. (The small sun-dappled Sorolla Museum was recently mentioned New York Time’s most recent 36 Hours in Madrid).

Dr. Albert C. Barnes was a chemist living just outside of Philadelphia who made big bucks over his 1899 creation of Argyrol, an antiseptic compound used to treat gonorrhea infections. That immense fortune allowed him to pursue his leisure interests including art. Barnes began collecting in the early 1900s (at first sending his friend to Paris to buy for him) and ultimately amassed a 9,000 piece collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern paintings, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses (including the pivotal Joy of Life) 46 Picassos, six by Serat, and 14 Modiglianis. His collection is worth an incalculable amount of billions and billions of dollars.

A number of things about Barnes were unusual for the time, including that he employed Black people at his Argyrol factory and that he displayed art from African Americans and Africans alongside European masterworks. Also unique: his belief that people from all walks of life would greatly benefit from engaging with art. For a time his massive collction (then housed in his estate a few miles outside of Philly) was only open to students and workers. It wasn’t until 1923 that there was a public showing of Barnes’ collection. He also believed one should look at art in comparison and contrast to other works of art. Those other works of art could be other paintings, metalworks, African masks, Native American jewelry. So he meticulously arranged priceless works next to then unknown works. This means a Picasso may catch your eye up at the top of a grouping and that one of the collection’s most famous works, Van Gogh’s The Postman, is hung in a corner, flanked by other oil paintings and topped by small metal sculptures.

This is an obvious departure from how museums today generally display art: In austere white spaces with enough space in between each work to pay significant reverence to the artist. In the 1930s, Barnes commissioned an enormous mural from Henri Mattise. Mattise came to Pennsylvania to to the measurements and returned to France to work on the mural in a huge abandoned movie theater. But oops, he measured wrong and had to start over (he later sold the mis-measured mural to a museum in France). When the time came for Matisse finally to install the dramatic blue and rose Dance in Barnes’s home museum, Henri was apparently displeased that such a grand work that took so much time would hang in a room with so many other works, including a Seurat and a Cézane, this despite his earlier feelings that it was a great teaching tool that Barnes displayed old master’s works alongside modern pieces.

Other than being gobsmacked by so many important artists’ work presented in such a cozy, intimate setting (the opposite of giant white-walled museums), I just couldn’t believe that I did not know about this place. But that might be sort of by design by because the Barnes isn’t part of the world’s art museum networks. Dr. Barnes stipulated in his will that under no circumstances should the collection ever be moved. Not even an inch. So while other museums loan art for big shows, the Barnes is not at all part of this lending network. In fact, when we were there, the Barnes Foundation was hosting a Modigliani exhibit and even though the exhibit was located within the Barnes, the 11 Modigliani’s in the main foundation space didn’t join the temporary exhibit’s Modigliani’s. Because nothing must ever be moved.

The major modern day controversy was that the entire collection was actually moved from Dr. Barnes estate a few miles outside of Philly to a location right in the center of Philadelphia. Granted, each room was carefully recreated to be identical to Barnes’ home, but it was a huge brouhaha and is the subject of a documentary called “The Art of the Steal” that posits the moving of the collection was a heist.

During our visit, we had a guided tour which I recommend because there are no placards describing the works, because Barnes believed museums should not be didactic, rather, the viewer should take in the work in relation to other works. Comparing and contrasting as way to absorb meaning from the piece, rather than having a narrative or information about the artists’ life color the viewers perception. In one room, there is an east African sculpture with an elongated face, and our guide pointed to a Modigliani painting right above it with its elongated face, and it was so clear that Modigliani was influenced by African masks. Same for African masks with hollow eyes and blocky triangle noses and a Picasso painting with those same features. Barnes would have asked why we call the makers of the masks artisans yet we call the European painters artists.

On the one hand, I am in full support of Barnes’ bucking the hoity toity often gatekeeping institutions of art museums in favor of more homey and less reverent way of seeing art. On the other hand, who does he think he is to prize his own groupings and curation above the vision of the individual artist? And isn’t he being a gatekeeper as well by demanding that 9,000 works of art must never budge a millimeter from his vision? His ego was on full display, in my mind, in a letter he wrote to Matisse’s son just after Matisse installed Dance in Barnes’s home. Apparently Matisse overdid it on the installation and had a mild heart attack. Barnes gave him a little whiskey, he seemed better, and then Barnes put pen to paper to urge Matisse’s son to get his dad back to France ASAP and that Henri should definitely not, under any circumstances, meet with anyone else in the U.S., especially not as part of any social engagements. To me, this letter (on display near the restrooms at the Barnes Foundation) read as a man who wanted total control of Matisse’s work in the U.S. He did not want anyone else to have Matisse. He didn’t succeed however. While I’d never seen as many Matisses in one day as I did the day I visited the Barnes Foundation and (it’s bitter rival) the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art has 1,200 Matisse works, making it by far the world’s largest Matisse collection.

I’ve been thinking so much about Barnes’ vision and I’m not sure where I land. But, I do know I’ll be going back to the Barnes Foundation to experience it all again.

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