Our return visit to Philadelphia had been inspired by the newly opened Barnes Foundation, crowning the museum- lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In 1912, the famous curmudgeon Dr. Albert C. Barnes started to assemble an astounding array of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpieces. After a public exhibition of these works was roundly derided, Barnes retreated to his suburban home and gallery, tightly restricting access to his collection even after its vast worth was universally acknowledged. Barnes made it clear in his will that the collection should stay in his Merion home in perpetuity, but amid a storm of controversy, Philadelphia politicians working with local charitable institutions managed to break the will and transfer the collection to the city.
Matisse called The Barnes Foundation “the only sane place to see art in America,” and so it continues to be, with timed tickets keeping crowds at bay. The new space is faithful to the layout of the original galleries, ensuring that Barnes’ ensembles could be precisely recreated. These “ensembles” are what make the museum unique. Not content to hang his masterpieces in a row on the wall, Barnes grouped seemingly disparate works together, revealing similarities in line, color, space or light. The daubs of paint on an 18th-century earthenware pot reflect the brushstrokes in the Matisse and Cézanne paintings nearby, for example. In the first gallery, Renoir’s glorious “The Artist’s Family” is flanked by velvety Giorgione and Tintoretto paintings of similar hues. African masks connect to Modigliani portraits as well as to Old Master Crucifixion scenes. Throughout, symmetrical arrangements of decorative objects inform the Seurats, Gauguins, van Goghs and Picassos. The excellent audio guide helps to clarify the connections.