Nearly a century after its establishment, the Barnes Foundation continues to fascinate for reasons far beyond its impressive collection. Home to arguably the greatest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the world, the Barnes boasts masterworks by Renoir (181 works in total), Cézanne (69), Matisse (59), Picasso, and Van Gogh — a collection valued at over $25 billion.
The Foundation was founded in 1922 by Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), a chemist and entrepreneur who co-invented the anti-infective drug Argyrol, which was introduced as a commercial medicine in 1901. Using the profits from his business, Dr. Barnes began to collect paintings. He sent his friend William Glackens to Paris in 1912, where the artist purchased dozens of works on Dr. Barnes’ behalf. Notable pieces include Van Gogh’s The Postman and Picasso’s Young Woman Holding a Cigarette — avant-garde works whose significance was largely unrecognized by mainstream curators of the era.
Vincent Van Gogh’s The Postman, 1888 (on left). Pablo Picasso’s Young Woman Holding a Cigarette (Jeune femme tenant une cigarette), 1901. In Copyright. © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photos courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Over the course of the next four decades, Dr. Barnes would remain at the forefront of the world of art collecting. In addition to his legendary trove of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings, he amassed Native American fine crafts, early American furniture, decorative art, and African sculpture (well before it was commonly collected).
This eclectic collection is integral to the Barnes’ lasting distinctiveness. Rather than grouping pieces by specific era or culture, he constructed “ensembles” — unusual wall groupings in which masterpieces hang alongside yarn spinners, keys, scissors, ladles, and other household objects. The ensembles compel visitors to see the works (and the everyday tools) in an entirely new way — to notice previously unexpected visual relationships. The ensembles teach you to “see” unlike any other museums.
Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
With this in mind, IVY planned a Culture Day Trip to The Barnes Foundation to learn how to “see” for ourselves. We’ve included below a brief description of the ensembles’ insights to give a better sense of what the Barnes offers.
If you’re interested in experiencing them for yourself, please join us for the tour. Transportation to and from NYC is included (with unlimited mimosas along the way), as well as lunch at the museum and a tour and tasting at the award-winning Philadelphia Distilling, the first craft distillery to open in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. TLDR: escape the city and see art like never before, without having to drive to Philly yourself!
Dr. Barnes’ wall groupings bring works from different eras, cultures, and media into the same room. His genius was in teaching visitors to appreciate works of art in terms of their visual relationships: the shape of a vase echos the outline of a female figure in a painting, for instance, revealing an aspect of the painting that might otherwise have gone unseen.
Each room at the Barnes is a work in and of itself, meticulously curated to bring out the symmetry, balance, and rhythm of the ensemble. The result is to demonstrate that “art” is something inherent to all human beings — across all periods and cultures — and not something to be confined to the world of museums, galleries, and critics.
To experience a work by Picasso at the Barnes is to experience a Picasso like never before.
The ensembles specifically revolve around correspondences in color, line, light, and space. Depending on the specific ensemble, certain aspects of the work will dominate the view. In this sense, the galleries themselves are “texts”: works can be valued for their individual merit, but can also be viewed in terms of their contribution to the larger body of work.
This idea was revolutionary at the time, serving as a precursor to the installation art of the 1970s — and the Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts of today.
Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Life as an Ensemble
Like all good art, the ensembles remain thought-provoking once you leave the Foundation’s grounds. The wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling works are puzzles; you must use your imagination to see the connection between the works, and are sure to keep mulling them over for some time. And this is the appeal: by bringing in an array of works, the ensembles engender a deeper, wide-ranging appreciation of art and human creation.
This is an experience that applies to life in all its peculiarities. By exposing yourself to an expansive scope of ideas and experiences — by reading news from different sources, by interacting with different cultures — you gain a deeper understanding of the world at large, and the ensemble that is life.
To learn more about the Barnes Foundation and its ensembles, please consider joining IVY on our Culture Day Trip on December 2. We hope to see you there!
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