The Barnes includes more than 800 paintings in its $25 billion collection. When we asked Gillman to show us his favorites, we did not get the eye-popping icons we expected. Instead: a luncheon scene by Renoir, a Goya portrait, a primitive head sculpted by Modigliani.
Complexity. Ambiguity. Flatness interacting with dimension. The tension between representation and abstraction. The rhythm of line and color through a composition.
These are some of the criteria he uses to explain his choices, expected from the Oxford-educated art historian who took over the Barnes in 2006 and ran the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before that.
But beyond his resumé, Gillman's eye has been refined by his background in philosophy, Chinese art, and the aesthetic theories of Albert C. Barnes.
Reviewing the list of favorites, Joseph Rishel, senior curator of European paintings before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, "Clearly, Derek - no surprise - is on the top of his game. . . . His choices pluck just about all the primary strings of Dr. Barnes' remarkably prescient and broad views while finding a personal sweet spot in each cluster."
Loose and friendly, with an easy laugh, Gillman, 60, says, "I'm a visual guy. I respond to pictures, to images. And I don't in my own mind differentiate between the emotional and the rational response." Did a painting ever make him cry? "I had an English public school upbringing - I was taught not to cry."
Some viewing advice for the typical eye?
"When you look at a work of art," Gillman says, "ask yourself, where does the artist want me to go? The Klee, the Renoir, the Soutine - Barnes was looking for works that help you do that."
Henri Matisse, 1912; Main Room. "The man is a warrior, a force of nature. This for me - and probably for Barnes, too - is a very fine point where the seesaw is nicely balanced between the pleasures and the intrigue for the eye of a pattern and colors, and the figure that is located in the real world."
Terracotta Pots and Flowers
Paul Cézanne, 1891-2; Room 2. "It's not necessarily something you'd stop at - for one reason, it's sitting next to van Gogh's The Postman - yet it is a very compelling painting."
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875; Room 13. "We have 181 Renoirs, so one seemed reasonable. This is an impressionist painting - relaxed, ordinary, middle-class couple. A moment of intimacy."
The Studio Boat
Claude Monet, 1876; Room 9. "That fleeting effect of light, sky, water. You may say it looks moody, overcast. I see this as an act of the hand and the eye. It's the painting whose postcard sells the most in the Barnes gift shop."
Amedeo Modigliani, 1911-12; Mezzanine. "Modigliani was already ill with tuberculosis when he did these figures. He couldn't sell them, so he had them in his courtyard and put candles on them at night so it was like a primitive temple. It's a very strong piece."
Baule peoples, 19th-early 20th century; Balcony. "A stunning, wonderful object. It used to be the logo of the Barnes. If you go out to Merion, you'll find this represented in the mosaic outside the gallery."
Pablo Picasso, 1903; Room 18. "Quite three-dimensional, but flat at the same time. When you stand back and look at it, there is this absolute stillness, but when you look down at the left hand - crushing the napkin - there is this ripple and rhythm in a point of action. I find it very powerful and obviously very El Greco-esque. This is poverty."
The Pastry Chef
Chaim Soutine, c. 1919; Room 16. "The paint is erupting out of the canvas. It wants to spread all over and out and come into the room. And yet, in the midst of this explosion, this volcanic painting, the eyes are level. You think you've lost this character in paint - but he's there, within it, looking out at you."
Paul Klee, 1924; Room 17. "It's a representational scene, an abstract painting, a piece of music, an exercise in paint balance and color harmonies. My thesis on Klee is that you can never have too many Klees. He's one of the greatest painters who ever lived."
Portrait of Jacques Galos
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1826; Room 6. "A radiant, warm face. But it's not like a Renoir face - not warm in a sentimental way. He is the rational, clear-thinking human being. I like the stillness of the figure - utterly, utterly still - and yet utterly alive."