Welcome to the Barnes Foundation, one of the world's great art galleries. But abandon hope, all ye who enter here, if you expect catalogues, docents, taped tours, explanatory plaques, museum shops and post cards or color slides to take home as treasured souvenirs.
Dr. Albert C. Barnes, as eclectic and eccentric a lover of art as this country has produced, had other ideas. During his collecting years, 1905-1951, Barnes reportedly accumulated more Renoirs than anyone else in the world -- 180, to be exact. He hung them in an imposing Italianate palace on his estate in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion Station,on the Main Line, and barred the door to the public. But today, with a little effort, you can see those Renoirs -- along with hundreds of other acquisitions ranging from early Flemish masterpieces to famous works by modern European and American masters.
During Barnes' lifetime, his collection was out of bounds for all but a privileged few. Among those denied access were some of the era's most respected museum officials; Barnes had nothing but scorn for institutions that displayed art for the transitory enjoyment of a public not trained in his brand of art appreciation. In 1958, seven years after his death, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania went to court to open the gallery of his tax-free foundation to at least a limited number of weekly visitors.
A visit to the Barnes Foundation takes planning and perseverance. The gallery is open to the public only from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday; it is closed on legal holidays and all of July and August. One half of the collection is shown in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Visitors inside the gallery are restricted to a total of 100 with reservations and 100 without on Fridays and Saturdays, and 50 with reservations and 50 without on Sundays. Children under 12 are not admitted.
But once you are inside, it is well worth the effort. The Barnes Foundation is 23 rooms of wonder, ranging from more Modiglianis than most museums own to early Picassos never reproduced in color anywhere. The central hall, from which both morning and afternoon tours begin, soars to arches filled with Matisse murals of dancers and a typical melange of Barnesian eclecticism, from Impressionist works to 15th-century masterpieces hung beneath a frieze of pewter implements. Among the glories in this room alone: Ce'zanne's "Card Players," a magnificent Seurat "Bathers" and a brilliant palette of works by Renoir, Giorgione, Daumier, Tintoretto, Monet and Corot.
They are hung as no other gallery would arrange them. (The highly intellectualized process by which Barnes contrived to hang his exhibits is described in the dry little 1970s publication kept chained to shelves in the gallery and sold at the entrance.)
From the grandeur of its entry to the open gallery above -- the best vantage point for viewing the Matisse murals -- Barnes' foundation does not cease to amaze, awe and, he would be shocked to learn, entertain. He found likeness in still lifes and Pieta's and hung them together. He put small paintings high and big paintings low, mixed the unmixable and made sense of the result.
If you find the insistently symmetrical mix of objets and paintings, periods and subjects hard to take, it helps to remember that the gallery dates back to the 1920s, heyday of Elbert Hubbard and his Roycroftersand other offshoots of the arts and crafts movement, with its emphasis on natural materials and simple forms.
A self-made man who studied medicine and chemistry, and made a fortune from a patent medicine called Argyrol, Albert C. Barnes bought his first important painting, a Corot landscape, in 1905, and his first Renoir soon after, according to a monograph published in the foundation's journal. He collected the work of an old school friend, painter William Glackens, a member of the group known as The Eight, and, through Glackens, the collection grew to include the work of Maurice Prendergast and other Americans.
In 1912, Glackens traveled to Paris with $20,000 entrusted to him by Barnes. He bought 19 paintings, including a Renoir, before he ran out of money. Later, Barnes became his own purchasing agent, accumulating his Renoirs, 60 Matisses and a stunning roster of Impressionist works along with a marvelous collection of drawings, Old Masters, Chinese and Persian art, American Indian artifacts, western sculpture, antiquities and Benin bronzes -- more than 1,000 paintings in all and an incalculable number of artifacts and furnishings.
Barnes intended the gallery as a teaching adjunct of a tuition-free art appreciation school for the educational enrichment of students in Pennsylvania colleges and public schools. His original proposal, in 1922, reflected the theories of his celebrated mentor, philosopher-educator John Dewey. There was nothing to be gained, says a Barnes Foundation manifesto still in circulation, from the misguided pursuit of "culture" and by "aimless wandering in galleries." The study of art appreciation demanded the same hard-working dedication expected in engineering, medicine and the law. Education was preparation for meeting the problems of life.
By itself, this kind of thinking might not have troubled the intended beneficiaries -- this was already the age of educational soul-searching and the "progressive school" -- but, it transpired, Barnes wasn't about to let the public school system exercise control over the proposed course of study. And, although he seemed to expect his foundation to be administered by a prestigious institution of higher learning, the draft charter banned tours of the gallery and lectures by outsiders -- effectively preventing participating colleges from using the Barnes collection as a teaching adjunct to their own art history courses. There were no takers.
Irascible and autocratic, Barnes was not accustomed to being crossed. He never got over the rejection. He endowed his educational foundation anyway, offering free courses to full-time high school and college students, but crankily limited public access to the gallery to a favored few friends and friends of friends. Even after his death, in 1951, the Barnes Foundation continued to bar art historians representing those colleges that had scorned his advances.
In keeping with Barnes' condemnation of people who thought a work of art was merely something to be looked at, none of the foundation's treasures was lent to museums and galleries. Full color reproductions were out of the question: All requests for pictures or slides of the gallery's masterpieces were politely met with prints -- in chaste black and white -- to the dismay of museum folk and art historians who weren't allowed to look at the originals, either.
It was Walter Annenberg, then publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who started the process that finally freed the Barnes collection for the rest of us. After Barnes' death at the age of 79, Annenberg began a campaign for public access. The case was in and out of the courts, but, in 1958, Pennsylvania filed suit against the Barnes Foundation and was successful in gaining public admittance to the gallery in 1961.
It isn't hard for a visitor to Barnes' unique gallery to conjure up the ghost of a chunky, authoritarian figure dressed in a cap and golfing knickers. He is so strong a presence that people tend to talk about him as though he were still very much alive.
Prof. Porter Aichele, an art historian who has taught at Bryn Mawr and Vassar, falls into the trap. "He's very high on the decorative," she says, "and one of his theories is that inherently decorative quality can be ascertained not only in works of art but in craft." Aichele calls this "a very Morrisian idea," a reference to the creator of the Morris chair. "It's not one I object to from an educational point of view," she adds. "I find it rather distracting to have things hung all over the place when you're trying to look at the pictures, but I imagine from a teaching point of view it's probably not a bad thing."
Barnes' marvelous hodgepodge is in the custody of an exceptionally courteous and helpful staff, which gracefully enforces the rules: Photographs, lectures and raised voices are banned; coats must be checked and handbags and parcels deposited in lockers that cost a dime. Aichele remembers arriving at the foundation last spring in charge of a group of Bryn Mawr graduates celebrating their 50th reunion. One of the participants suffered from cerebral palsy and walked with difficulty. Guards suddenly materialized.
"They simply whisked down to the end of the driveway and they carried her in," Aichele says.