Our return visit had been inspired by the newly opened Barnes Foundation, crowning the museum-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In 1912, the famous curmudgeon Dr. Albert C. Barnes started to assemble an astounding array of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpieces. After a public exhibition of these works was roundly derided, Barnes retreated to his suburban home and gallery, tightly restricting access to his collection even after its vast worth was universally acknowledged. Barnes made it clear in his will that the collection should stay in his Merion home in perpetuity, but amid a storm of controversy, Philadelphia politicians working with local charitable institutions managed to break the will and transfer the collection to the city.
The new space is faithful to the layout of the original galleries, ensuring that Barnes' ensembles could be precisely recreated.
Matisse called The Barnes Foundation "the only sane place to see art in America," and so it continues to be, with timed tickets keeping crowds at bay. The new space is faithful to the layout of the original galleries, ensuring that Barnes' ensembles could be precisely recreated. These "ensembles" are what make the museum unique. Not content to hang his masterpieces in a row on the wall, Barnes grouped seemingly disparate works together, revealing similarities in line, color, space or light. The daubs of paint on an 18th-century earthenware pot reflect the brushstrokes in the Matisse and Cézanne paintings nearby, for example. In the first gallery, Renoir's glorious "The Artist's Family" is flanked by velvety Giorgione and Tintoretto paintings of similar hues. African masks connect to Modigliani portraits as well as to Old Master Crucifixion scenes. Throughout, symmetrical arrangements of decorative objects inform the Seurats, Gauguins, van Goghs and Picassos. The excellent audio guide helps to clarify the connections.
Outside the galleries, the museum proved to be less successful, starting with the dour "Barnes Totem" sculpture at the entrance — a poor herald of the vibrant art within. The process to secure an audio guide was unnecessarily complicated. Banal but important parts of the museum, such as the coat check and the restrooms, lacked adequate signage and were difficult to find. And anyone who knows anything about Barnes couldn't fail to note the irony of the airy main lobby-lounge named for Walter and Leonore Annenberg, people he detested. Indeed, the roster of donors inscribed on the building's Negev stone reads like Barnes' list of enemies.
Nevertheless, the brilliance of the collection outshines these minor irritations, and The Barnes Foundation alone makes a trip to Philadelphia worthwhile. Before going, I recommend viewing "The Art of the Steal," a fascinating documentary detailing the history of the foundation and the controversy surrounding its move into the city. Reserve tickets in advance at barnesfoundation.org.
The Recently Restored Rodin Museum
It might be tempting to visit The Barnes Foundation and the compact Rodin Museum on the same day. They are, after all, right across the street from one another. But this would be to risk an attack of Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic illness induced by excessive exposure to fine art, named for the French author, who claimed to have suffered from it on a visit to Florence in 1817. (Personally, having visited the Uffizi on numerous occasions, I suspect his dizziness may have been the effect of standing up for several hours at a stretch.) Anyway, now that Philadelphia's Beaux- Arts Rodin Museum has completed a major three-year restoration, it deserves viewing with a fresh pair of eyes.
Mrs. Harper and I had the good fortune to attend the reopening ceremonies in July, and this jewel of a museum — which charges no admission — positively gleams. Renovations sought to honor the 1929 plans of designer Jacques Gréber and architect Paul Cret, going so far as to re-create sculptures' pedestals and restore the original paint colors of the galleries. More important, the sculptures have been returned to their original arrangement, so that dramatic pieces such as "The Three Shades" and "The Burghers of Calais" once again overlook the formal gardens.
Inside, the luminous marble sculpture "The Kiss," a replica of the original, dominates the main gallery, flanked by other notable works such as "The Martyr" and the moving but easy-to-miss "The Helmet-Maker's Wife." Quiet side galleries hold yet more treasures such as "The Call to Arms," a stirring bronze that couldn't fail to rouse the most lethargic soldier to action. Also be sure to take time to note the details of "The Gates of Hell," the monumental bronze door at the museum's entrance that occupied more than 30 years of Rodin's life. Some of his most famous works, including "The Thinker," were developed for this door.
If it is not possible to view The Barnes Foundation and the Rodin Museum on different days, at least break for lunch in between. Skip the poor restaurant in the Barnes and eat at the Fountain Restaurant in the nearby Four Seasons instead.