The following essay was originally written in September 2009. In May 2012, almost nine decades after its opening, the Barnes Foundation closed its doors in Merion, Pennsylvania, and the collection was moved to a new facility on the Benjamin Franklin Highway in downtown Philadelphia.
The story of the Barnes Foundation is both a thrilling tale and a devastating one in the history of art. From its opening until today it has been a curious, problematic, misunderstood, terribly underrated, and most of all relatively unknown institution to both art historians and art lovers worldwide.
Upon further investigation of the Foundation and its founder, it is impossible to oversee the obvious fact that there exists no museum, no collection, no school of thought, and no story as rich as that of the Barnes Foundation.
Just like his Foundation, the story of Albert Barnes is indeed a captivating one. His combination of good luck and a true passion for art enabled him to assemble one of the finest private collections of art in the world, a collection the historian John Russell writes “is unlikely ever to be equaled.”(143)
Upon the Barnes Foundation’s opening in 1925, Barnes had a collection of the finest painters of the nineteenth and twentieth century, including Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Renoir. The collection consisted of one hundred and fifty works by Renoir, fifty by Cézanne, twenty-two by Picasso, twelve by Matisse, works by Daumier, Gauguin and Van Gogh.(290) It would virtually double in the years to come. Barnes had also purchased and exhibited a number of works by Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani at a time when both artists were poor and unknown.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City opened four years later, in 1929, and Barnes was among the first to bring the art of unknown, contemporary painters into America. In addition to the masterpieces of the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern schools, Barnes collected art from the Egyptian, Greek, and early Christian periods, and from the contemporary French and American schools, in addition to African sculpture and works by renowned painters such as El Greco, Corot, Daumier and Rousseau.
He exhibited these paintings and sculptures side by side, on the same wall and in the same gallery, displaying art in an unprecedented and unparalleled way. This crucial presentation demonstrated that art does not always need to be viewed or studied chronologically, proving that the fundamental principles of aesthetics exist in all periods and in all media.
It was Henri Matisse himself who, upon visiting the Foundation, remarked: “The Old Masters are put beside modern paintings, a Rousseau next to a primitive work, and this bringing together helps students understand a lot of things that the academies don’t teach.” (161)
Barnes was able to become such a collector and patron of the arts because he discovered a silver-protein compound which could be used to treat inflammations; this discovery made him a millionaire by the age of thirty-five. By the time Barnes had the means to begin buying and collecting art, it was the early 1900s, and he traveled to Paris to begin assembling his collection. He met fellow collectors and gallery owners such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard, Paul Guillaume, and Zborowski.
When Vollard visited America years later in 1936, he would remark of Barnes’ accomplishment: “I assure you that there does not exist, in the world, another collection of masterpieces of the two greatest artists of the nineteenth century, Cézanne and Renoir, comparable to the one assembled by Dr. Barnes.”(162)
Vollard, the famous Parisian dealer, is credited for discovering Cézanne and buying his work when no one was even looking at it. He also promoted Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and Picasso, and would sell major works of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist schools to Barnes.
Unlike many wealthy American art collectors such as like Henry Clay Frick and Henry Havemeyer, Barnes personally chose and purchased the works he displayed. Barnes’ first paintings were purchased with the help of William Glackens, a high school classmate and by that time a well-known American painter. In 1912, Barnes sent Glackens to Paris, then the capital of the modern art world, designating the paintings he wanted and the maximum price he wished to pay.
Throughout the following years he became a student of art history, traveling to the great museums of Paris, Florence, Madrid, Berlin, and London. “Good paintings,” Barnes wrote, “are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most very nice people. He who surrounds himself with quality in painting, bought with his blood, is a King.”
In the decade after the First World War, Barnes’ international reputation as a collector and art authority was established. Within the next few years, Barnes would build a gallery for his collection and publish a number of books and articles on art. Barnes published seven books: The Art in Painting (1925); The French Primitives and Their Form (1931); The Art of Henri Matisse (1933); The Art of Renoir (1935); The Art of Cézanne (1939); Ancient Chinese and Modern European Painting (1943) and Art and Education: A Collection of Essays (1929).
In addition, he would found an educational institution “to promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.”(10) On March 19, 1925, the Barnes Foundation opened in Merion, Pennsylvania, which is a wealthy suburb west of Philadelphia.
John Dewey, the Foundation’s Director of Education and a close friend of Barnes, gave the dedicatory address. “We are really celebrating here today one of the most significant steps taken in this country for freedom of pictorial or plastic art, for art in education, and for what is genuine and forward-moving throughout the whole field of education.”(95-6) Barnes wrote of his new Foundation: “the hope is that every person, of whatever station in life, will be allowed to get his own reactions to whatever the Foundation has to offer. That means academicism, conformity to outworn conditions, and counterfeits in art, living and thinking, can have no place in the intended scope of the Foundation.”(82)
In September of 1930, Henri Matisse, already a prominent and renowned artist, was in New York as a member of the jury at the Carnegie International Exposition. First prize that year was given to Picasso’s Portrait of Madame Picasso. Matisse himself had won first prize in 1927 He telegraphed Barnes, asking permission to visit the Foundation, which had the largest collection of Matisse’s work in America.
Barnes had first seen Matisse’s paintings at Gertrude and Leo Stein’s Paris apartment around the year 1914 and continued to buy his works throughout the 1920s. In the book The Proud Possessors: The Lives and Tastes of Some Adventurous American Art Collectors, Aline Saarinen writes that the Barnes Foundation had: “the greatest collection of Matisse paintings and sculptures in America”.(189)
By this time, the Foundation functioned almost entirely as a school and was not open to the general public. Barnes agreed to his request, and while in Merion, Matisse was commissioned to paint a mural to decorate the three lunettes of the main gallery. Matisse, whom Barnes thought of as “the most important of all living artists,” was given freedom to choose the subject matter.(169) Matisse would later recall that the Foundation was “one of the most striking things in America . . . that will doubtless manage to destroy the artificial and disreputable presentation of the other collections . . ..”(19)
This was the first, large-scale commission for Matisse. He was no longer painting in the Neo-Impressionist nor in the expressive Fauve style of the early 1900s, no longer painting the Nice interiors he is so famous for, and not yet experimenting with the paper cut-outs he would become fascinated with near the end of his life. It was a crucial period for him, wherein a distinct move towards simplicity can be seen in the style, the composition and the technique of his painting.
In January of 1931, four months after his visit to the Foundation, Matisse accepted the commission. Barnes gave him a letter of agreement for the mural, along with a check for $10,000. The written agreement called for a second payment of $10,000 when the work was half done and a third payment of the same amount when the mural was installed at the Foundation.(21)
Matisse was sixty-one years old. Shortly afterwards, he rented a deserted film studio in Nice in order to have adequate space to work on the large project. Matisse chose to paint a composition of figures in motion, dancing, a subject he had painted in the past on more than one occasion, and one he would continue to paint in the years to come.
In an interview from 1951, Matisse discussed the subject of the dance and the Merion mural.
I like dance very much. Dance is an extraordinary thing: life and rhythm. [At the Barnes,] I needed to give the impression of vastness in a limited space. That is why I used figures which are not always whole, so half of their bodies is outside. I use a fragment and I lead the spectator by the rhythm. I lead him to follow the movement from the fragment he sees so that he has a feeling of the totality. The good thing is certainly – as in painting generally – to give the idea of immensity within a very limited space.(139)
He recalled of the first stages of working on the mural:
When I tried to do sketches on the one meter canvases I got nowhere. Finally, I took three, five-meter canvases, the same dimensions as the wall, and one day, armed with a charcoal stick at the end of a bamboo pole, I set about drawing the whole thing in one stroke.(619)
It was at this time, around the late summer of 1931, that Matisse changed his approach and developed the technique of using large sheets of painted paper, or color cutouts, to try out compositional changes without having to do extensive repainting. The cutouts could be pinned to the surface of the canvas and easily altered by moving and cutting.
When the composition was finalized, he planned to remove the cut paper and fill in the area on the canvas with the same color in oil paint that had been used for the sheets of paper. This was a radical departure from Matisse’s previous technique; it not only permitted him to make large canvases quickly, it also depersonalized his relationship to the surface of the picture, in accordance with his notion of creating an “architectural” rather than an “expressive” surface.
The project was supposed to take “about a year to finish.”(274) Within a year, Matisse had almost completed the composition for the mural when he discovered that a mistake had been made regarding the dimensions. Matisse had overlooked two pieces of paper that were supposed to be attached to a paper template which Barnes had traced directly from the wall.
The template was to be used to determine the size and shape of the canvases Matisse worked on, as to ensure that the murals would fit the space. But because of this misunderstanding, Matisse misjudged the width of the pendentives between the lunettes. Instead of fixing his mistake, he began anew. This first version, known as Dance I, or the Paris Dance Mural, unsuitable for the Barnes commission, was purchased by The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1937.
On January 24, 1933, Barnes arrived in Nice to see the progress of the work. He had not seen the mural yet and did not know that Matisse was using painted paper and not paint. He was enthusiastic and liked the composition enough that he told Matisse it could be finished as it was. Matisse continued to work on the mural, however, until the beginning of April.
In a letter dated March 7, 1933, Matisse wrote to his friend:
I regret I cannot see you and tell you of the ups and downs of my work which, in spite of everything, is advancing normally, getting closer to the idea which grips me – that is to say, the decorative painting forming one body with the architecture.(620)
Before the work was shipped to Merion, Matisse planned and supervised the packing and shipping of the canvases and accompanied them when he sailed for New York in May. A day after his arrival, both he and the crates arrived in Merion and the mural was installed over the weekend.
In April, 1933, more than two years after Barnes offered Matisse the commission, the Merion Dance Mural was installed in the three lunettes of the main gallery. Despite all the difficulties and misunderstandings, both the artist and the patron were pleased with the outcome.
As soon as I saw the decoration in place, I felt that it was detached absolutely from myself, and that it took on a meaning quite different from what it had had in my studio, where it was only a painted canvas. There in the Barnes Foundation it became a rigid thing, heavy as stone, and one that seemed to have been spontaneously created at the same time with the building.”(291)
Barnes considered it “a major addition to the Foundation and its collection” and in a letter to Matisse, he wrote: “One would like to call the place a cathedral now. Your painting is like a rose window of the cathedral.”(62) Barnes gathered all the Foundation’s students together in the main gallery and gave a three-hour lecture about it.
The Barnes Foundation commissioned Matisse’s creation of The Dance, and served as a patron of the arts from its inception until its closure in 2012. The Dance is situated in the main gallery of the Foundation together with, as Matisse noted, “the finest Renoirs, the finest Cézannes and remarkable Seurats” among monumental masterpieces by Picasso and Matisse himself, which hang directly below The Dance.(139)
Matisse was certainly correct when he called the Foundation “the finest museum of modern art.”(710)
Ayala Sella is a writer, living and working in New York and Israel. Born in Haifa, she moved to the United States at the age of four, and has spent the past years traveling between these two countries. Her first book, a collection of poetry entitled “soliloquies of a crosswalker” was released by Wasteland Press in May of 2011. Her poems have appeared in The 22 Magazine and in Velvet Park, and are forthcoming in The New York Quarterly.