One of the world’s great art collections has just moved from its founder’s house to a new home. For years the collection of the outspoken Albert Barnes in Philadelphia was only accessible by prior appointment. When TS Eliot applied to be admitted, Barnes rejected him, remarking simply, “Nuts.” I have a sneaking admiration for the answer. From 1912 onwards, Barnes bought 181 Renoirs, 69 amazing Cézannes, 46 superb early Picassos and 46 Matisses, still the best. Barnes himself was a control freak, a warning to all modern collectors and founders of trusts. He prescribed the exact hang of every picture in his collection. He prescribed that his heirs should buy gilt-edged government bonds. They served him well but eventually blew much of the fortune away in the inflationary 1970s.
Before his death in 1951, he put the entire collection, nowadays valued at around $30bn, in the majority control of Lincoln College in Philadelphia, whose members were mostly black. One reason for this trust was that he had been an early champion of black artists. Another was his distaste for Philadelphia’s high society. Barnes was the son of a one-armed butcher. Multicultural before his time, he was also intolerant. He dismissed the top society of Philadelphia as “social maggots”. He even asked his architect to design an execution chair for any art critic, “eunuch”, academic or society vermin who visited his collection. Admittedly, smart Philadelphia had derided Barnes’s collection when he showed 75 of its gems publicly for the first time in the 1920s.
The moving of the collection has been attended by years of controversy and legal argument. They are the one element in the saga that remains true to Barnes’s own nature. The collection has at last reopened in a thumping new foundation in central Philadelphia. A theme of the new location is “Gallery in a Garden, Garden in a Gallery”, so I have been to check out the idea. A visit to the new Barnes is essential for any lover of Impressionist and early 20th-century painting. Mercifully, the exact room size, colours and hang of Barnes’s original site have had to be respected by law. The collection is now 20 times better lit. When I entered the new main hall I had the art shock of my life. Its masterpieces make Paris’s Musée d’Orsay look like a plate of leftovers.
I am not the man to respond to architects’ style-bites. After listing 35 candidates, the trustees gave the job of designing the new building to a respected duo, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Most American critics have praised their new design to the skies. The landscaping is by the revered Laurie Olin, a mainstay of the University of Pennsylvania. Williams and Tsien explained to me that they had approached the main street-side of the site with a mental vision of a Paris square. Which one, I asked, and unabashed they replied, “The Tuileries”.
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway thunders past this façade, a street that has become known, rather sweetly, as Philadelphia’s Champs-Elysées. It still has a line of mature London planes, and up the road is Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. Olin has mismatched the planes with horse chestnuts. In the main open space the team has installed a raised narrow pool of blackened water, shallow and waiting for water lilies. I had just seen something similar in Philadelphia’s inspired nearby garden at Chanticleer.
The architects have faced their new building with slabs of honey-shaded limestone, extracted from the faraway Negev desert, south of Jerusalem. The slabs are separated by metal clips that are thought to suggest a west African type of textile. Barnes’s multiculturalism has become a style-bite for the façade. Up flights of steps, mature, transplanted deodar cedars are supposed to be echoing similar cedars in the collection’s previous grassy home at Merion. They look ridiculous in this hard-surfaced urban setting against a hard-faced tribute to a west African rug. The collection’s entrance door has been kept deliberately low-key. It is set beyond a pebbled formal pool of water, which is billed as “zen”. Zen, Paris, the Tuileries, west Africa: what is all this hype? The outer entry space contains a modernist metal “Barnes Totem” like a 30ft fork of lightning. Up behind it you can see a pillared and pedimented façade across the street. It made me pine for some guiding classical echoes in the entire design. Without them, it might all be another business school.
It has been a hot summer in Philadelphia but Olin needs to get out next year with a hosepipe and stop his semi-mature shrubs from defoliating again before October. Inside the building, the Garden in the Gallery is not going to change museum directors’ horizons. Behind glass walls a few ginkgo trees and liquidambars are aspiring to the daylight far above. What matters so much more is Barnes’s mind, his stupendous collection and the other love of his life.
On the lower floor, the foundation is housing an unmissable exhibition about Barnes and his Experiment in Education. I began with the caption which described his death in July 1951 when he jumped a Stop sign in his car. “Fidèle,” I read, “was euthanased at once on the sidewalk.” Euthanasia in Quaker Philadelphia? Was Fidèle an undeclared mistress? Barnes’s wife was Laura, co-founder of the foundation’s admirable horticultural school. Meanwhile, a petite French lady, Violette de Mazia, remained in charge of the picture gallery and much else. Fidèle was a black-and-white dog from Brittany. She sent “letters” to Barnes in French, signed with her paw-mark. She even “wrote” to congratulate Winston Churchill on the liberation of her native France in 1944. Her wooden bed, inscribed with her name, is touchingly on view. She also “wrote” and paw-signed some of Barnes’s rudest letters to “vermin” who applied to visit his collection.
Barnes made his vast fortune from a silver-based antiseptic that helped the eye complaints of children born to parents with venereal diseases. He then applied his remarkable mind to art and collecting. In 1929 he sold his business just before the Great Crash and wryly recalled how his “speciality was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their head”. In fact, like Henry Clay Frick or Norton Simon, those other great collectors, Barnes had developed a brilliant eye. In one morning in 1920s Paris he bought a bunch of paintings from an unknown Lithuanian, Chaim Soutine, and in the afternoon others by an artist, unrecognised at the time, called Modigliani in the afternoon. When American viewers complained about the Modigliani figures’ long necks, Barnes told them to look at the necks of traditional black African sculpture and to think again.
He also intensified his intellectual life. In 1917 he heard lectures at Columbia by the famous philosopher John Dewey. Dewey’s theories of “pragmatism” captivated Barnes and his concern for educating the wider public. In fascinating letters, he invites Dewey to come and stand with him before this or that painting and learn to look at it properly. In part Barnes was an apostle of the theory of art as pure form, developed in Bloomsbury by Roger Fry. His demolition of the art theories of the famous Bernard Berenson in Italy is still compelling.
Barnes was a missionary for his views. He had two-hour philosophy lessons imposed on all his factory workers over the lunch break. How many directors of a FTSE 100 company think that two hours of knowledge and reality might add massive value to their employees? Dewey rejects the notion that Barnes was just a rich bully. He wrote a mock epitaph for him as “the genius who often makes himself God-damned uncomfortable by the way in which he expresses and suppresses it”. The archive of Barnes’s papers is now being rearranged. I hope it is given to a major social and intellectual historian, not just to a “curator” who follows the detail without a wider grasp of his context. He was not just a despot or “devil”.
The theorising lies behind Barnes’s ultimate secret: his carefully constructed hang. Landscapes by Corot hang exactly above pink nudes by Renoir. Early crucifixions flank Cézannes. Barnes saw form and shape and challenges us to see how his mind worked. Nothing in his collection was placed by accident.
“Our building,” the architects proudly told me, “has made Philadelphia a global city.” I disagree. Barnes’s paintings, all 800 of them, will do that. It remains to be seen where their director will hang Fidèle’s bed. Legally, it cannot be paired with a Matisse.
Admission to the Collection Gallery is by timed ticket. To book, visit www.barnesfoundation.org