Overturning a will has brought a star collection to view

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.


Alfred Barnes made his money from pharmaceuticals and then spent it lavishly on art. Like most American collectors at the beginning of the last century he went to Paris, then the capital of the Art world and bought the work of the European Impressionists and Post-impressionists. Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Matisse, Bonnard and Picasso were all on his shopping list. This was supplemented with a collection of early America modernists from Charles Demuth to William Glackens and a varied collection of Tribal art objects, decorative and utilitarian Pennsylvanian cabinets and metalwork. The independently minded Dr Barnes housed his collection in a purpose built house in the suburb of Merion in Philadelphia, eventually opening it as an educational facility for students with a sincere interest in art. In fact ‘art professionals’ (especially those from the City of Philadelphia) were excluded as was any art critic bold enough to apply for permission to view the collection, the only reward for all their effort would be a refusal letter from his dog ‘Fidele’ signed with a paw print. The delightfully eccentric Dr Barnes would only allow his paintings to be reproduced in black and white and after his death he left the Foundation to Lincoln University, a minor, mainly black college. And that would have been that, except that the future of the collection, currently valued at £25 billion was too big a temptation for Philadelphia’s art establishment to ignore and several attempts were made to overturn the provisions of his will and to extract the collection from the University. When this ploy finally succeeded, against vociferous opposition, the newly re-housed Barnes Foundation Collection was opened in a designer building in Central Philadelphia alongside the other major Galleries in the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Friends of the Barnes Collection have still not recovered from this outrageous coup d’éta and of course the ramifications of overturning the stipulations of a will does have an on-going adverse effect on collectors wishing to leaving their art works to Museums. However, as much as one would sympathise with their cause, this new museum, right in the centre of town is of major benefit to the average art tourist and means the reclusive Barnes Foundation has now moved onto the world stage.
View of Matisse's "Dance" Mural which sits above main gallery during media opening of new Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia
Most Galleries would be pleased to have one Renoir; the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has 181. Cezanne is well represented with 69 paintings which includes the the largest of the ‘The Card Players‘ (1890-92) which now hangs below Seurat’s equally impressive ‘Les Poseuses’ of 1888. This is one serious collection of paintings and of world significance. Picasso is represented by 46 paintings, while Matisse, another star attraction, has 59 paintings on display. His famous ‘The Dancell’ mural (1932-33)was especially commissioned by Barnes to hang in the alcoves above the windows of the dining room. The first version did not fit the space because of a mix up between metric and imperial sizes but on his second attempt the work was finally finished and installed. This collection celebrates the joys of life and indeed Matisse’s impressive ‘Le Bon heure de vivre’ (1905-6) is one of the many star attractions.
The display is as eccentric as its former owner. The paintings are hung in decorative ‘ensembles ’, groups arranged according to themes and content and surrounded with decorative and utilitarian Philadelphia metalwork and antiques. Barnes was interested in seeing the connections between early modernism and its inspirations, often found in folk, naïve and ethnic art.A gramophone concealed within an antique cabinet and strategically placed beside Cezanne’s Card Players was used to play Beethoven 5th Symphony in which the opening theme was seen to be replicated in the internal rhythms of the picture. The new building designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien has an understated rectangular modernist exterior of sandstone and glass. As a concession to the good Doctors final wishes, the order of the collection remains exactly as he had left it, with the 24 galleries a near perfect replica of the original rooms; every painting hung exactly as it was at Merion. A higher ceiling height has been introduced to improve the lighting which gives a combination of artificial and natural light and is a great improvement on the original. The viewer experience had been greatly improved with timed entry, the numbers of people going round the gallery reduced to enhance viewing and there is a delightfully small café to refresh the appetites of the dedicated gallery visitor.

At one time this major collection of paintings was known only to the general public through black and white reproduction. The eccentric Dr Barnes may now be turning in his grave, but a new lease of life has been given to the many masterpieces that make up his rich and exciting collection.


  1. oliviairvine 23 May 2013 at 7:54 pm

    I wonder why he wouldn’t let art professionals and critics in to see his collection? That sounds line more than eccentricity to me. He must have had something against educated people, but then he let students see them while they were being educated- strange. i would say to him that professionals never stop learning. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for someone who made a fortune on pharmaceuticals, but I salute his good taste. It sounds like a wonderful collection.

    1. jim cowan 27 May 2013 at 9:38 am

      When he first showed his collection to the public, it was disparaged by the critics of the day – this was very advanced art for it time – and this was enough for him to form a dislike and distrust of the art establishment in Philadelphia.


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