Note: This article is by John Nick Miller, a SUNY Broome student.
Dr. Albert Barnes once said, “Living with and studying good paintings offers greater interest, variety and satisfaction than any other pleasure known to man.” Clearly, Dr. Barnes didn’t spend much time with the ladies. Nevertheless, art can be fascinating and extremely entertaining. As anyone who is fairly familiar with art will tell you, it is much more than some pretty paint on a canvas; it’s a snapshot into the artist’s soul, the environment in which it was created and the journey that that painting took to arrive in that specific gallery.
Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872 to 1951) was a very successful chemist and pharmacist. Along with a partner, he developed Argyrol, a treatment for gonorrhea and blindness in newborns. In 1906, this groundbreaking drug made him a very wealthy man. He eventually sold the company to focus on his expanding collection of art. In 1925 Barnes, together with philosopher John Dewey, established The Barnes Foundation, a gallery to both teach people about his pieces and to think critically. Their grand aim for the Foundation was to culture the American people and to advance democracy in the United States.
The Foundation building, located within the heart of Philadelphia’s museum district, is a work of art in itself. The building is a massive cube with few decorative features. It contrasts strongly with the dramatic, Greco-styled Free Public Library of Philadelphia which sits just across the street. The Foundation appears starkly modern or plain beside it. Inside, the paintings are laid out in an easy, flowing pattern that allows you to wander from room to room admiring and learning about the paintings.
Before you enter the gallery, you have to option of picking up an iPod to narrate your tour. I found the narration both entertaining and useful as the narrator pointed out things that I would have otherwise missed. For instance, if a large woman was pictured in the painting, below it would be an antique chair of rather large proportions that was clearly designed to hold such a woman. There were items like this all over the gallery. Barnes stacked his art; usually, there was some sort of metal hinge mounted high on the wall with a medium sized painting below it and a much larger painting below that. Occasionally, there was a desk or chair under the lowest piece.
Almost all of the paintings that Barnes collected were post-Impressionist and early modern (late 19th to early 20th century), as he loved the masters of these eras. Most of the paintings are by Paul Cezanne, Georges Seurat and Eduard Manet, with a handful by Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, to name but a few. The one artist whom Barnes valued above others was Pierre-Auguste Renoir; in the 39 years Barnes collected art, he acquired 184 of his paintings.This makes the Barnes Foundation the largest collection of Renoirs anywhere in the world.
Then Barnes Foundation is an excellent way to spend an afternoon or morning if you’re free in Philadelphia. The first Sunday of every month is free admission so you may want to plan your trip around that. Otherwise, you’ll be paying $20 for general admission or $15 with a student I.D. card. Find out more at http://www.barnesfoundation.org.