George Seurat’s The Models, 1886-1888 detail (In the collection of The Barnes Foundation)
[Works of art] integrate their fore-history as well as their after-history; and it is by virtue of their after-history that their fore-history is recognizable as involved in a continuous process of change. Works of art teach him how their function outlives their creator and how the artist's intentions are left behind. They demonstrate how the reception of a work by its contemporaries is part of the effect that the work of art has on us today. They further show that this effect depends on an encounter not just with the work of art alone but with the history which has allowed the work to come down to our own age.
—Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian”
THIS MAY TO GREAT acclaim, and after more than a decade of acrimony and struggle, the Barnes Foundation opened in its new location in Center City Philadelphia. Bounded on three sides by the Rodin Museum, the main branch of the public library, and Whole Foods Market, in the shadow of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (a street that was cut into the grid in the 1920s in a largely unsuccessful attempt to create a Philadelphian Champs-Élysées) the Barnes and its $25-30 billion art collection has finally been integrated into the civic economy of post-industrial Philadelphia.
Traditionally, the cultural and economic value of the Barnes collection has been conveyed by enumerating its 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos — or by the extraordinary quality of many of Barnes’s acquisitions, among them numerous masterpieces such as Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) (1905-6), Seurat’s Models (1886-88), and Cézanne’s The Card Players (1890-92). And it is these postimpressionist and modernist masterpieces that made the move so desirable, as they are guaranteed draws not only for specialists but for tourists less likely to have made the trip to the Barnes's original home six miles away in the Main Line suburb of Lower Merion. Yet the singularity of the collection — as Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy's new catalog well conveys — consists not simply in the aggregation of these canvases, but in their integration among a more heterogenous set of objects, including African sculpture, Pennsylvania German chests, French and American ironwork, and Renaissance painting, all of it carefully presented in a deliberate and idiosyncratic arrangement which itself obtains the status of a work of art. Taken together or in isolation, the meaning of these works is also bound up in the meaning of the institution that was transformed by its relocation earlier this year.
Albert Barnes grew up in the working class Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, attended public schools and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he made a fortune patenting and manufacturing the antiseptic compound Argyrol. He was a collector of art since the first decade of the twentieth century, and made his first modernist acquisitions in 1912, shortly before New York’s 1913 Armory Show fundamentally transformed the American art market. At first, Barnes displayed works from his collection both in his home and also on the walls of his factory in West Philadel...read more