January 22, 2016
By John O'Ceallaigh
A visitor's guide to the best works and exhibitions at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, featuring insider tips from Executive Director Thom Collins
Home to the largest collection of Renoir works in the world, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is recognised as one of America's most prestigious Impresssionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art galleries. Its collection also holds a number of works by Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. Here the foundation's executive director Thom Collins gives his insider guide to the best of the attraction.
How should first-time visitors structure their visit?
Visitors to the Barnes can structure their visit any way they like. For the first-time visitor, I suggest taking a guided tour led by one of our specially trained volunteers. After the tour, visit our special exhibition gallery (from February 21 until May 9 the exhibition Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change will be on view), have lunch in our Garden Restaurant or grab a coffee and snack from our coffee bar, and then return to the collection to view it again on your own. The Barnes Shop is a true gem, offering limited-edition handcrafted items, so I would also suggest stopping by before heading home for the day.
What should visitors ensure they see?
One of the most important works in the collection can be found on the second floor: Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), a monumental landscape by the artist, which is regarded as one of the pillars of early Modernism.
When are the best times to visit?
The best way to experience the Barnes collection is by taking a tour. I think one of the best days to visit is Tuesday; we’re closed to the public, but offer Premier Tours in the afternoon, which are very intimate. Wednesdays and Thursdays are also wonderful, since the galleries are often less crowded. In addition to daily collection tours, we also offer Private Tours for up to six people which can be customized based on what visitors are interested in seeing or learning about.
What is the most controversial work?
The Barnes is home to the largest Pierre-Auguste Renoir collection in the world. Renoir has polarised opinion for over 100 years and there is an ongoing debate regarding the merit of his 'late period’ works. The Renoir collection at the Barnes – totalling 181 works – and this debate are at the heart of the film Renoir - Revered and Reviled.
What's your favorite work?
Monet’s The Studio Boat. It is a beautiful painting, which conjures a deep feeling of peace and serenity. Monet’s studio boat provided him with a reprieve from modernity and the industrialisation that was taking place around him. It was a sanctuary where he could be left alone to paint and contemplate the beauty of nature.
What forthcoming temporary exhibitions are you most excited about?
On February 21, 2016, we will premiere Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, which examines the dramatic fluctuations in Picasso’s style during the period surrounding the First World War, from 1912 to 1924. From June 22 until August 22, 2016 we will present Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, a mid-career retrospective of installation artist Nari Ward traveling from the Perez Art Museum Miami. Finally, in autumn 2016, we will present A Joyful Revelation: The Fauve Paintings of Georges Braque, which brings together many of the artist’s most significant fauve paintings.
What is the institution’s greatest strength?
The Barnes Foundation’s greatest strength is our legendary collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpiece paintings, along with incredible examples of African art, Native American jewellery, textiles, and ceramics, and wrought iron objects which sit alongside these paintings.
What's unique about the institution?
The incredible collection is not only our greatest strength, but also what makes the Barnes unique. It features over 3,000 works, including 181 works by Renoir, 69 works by Cézanne; 59 works by Matisse; 16 works by Modigliani; and seven works by Van Gogh. The collection is also unique because of the way it is hung; salon-style and displayed inensembles organised according to the guiding principles of light, line, colour and space. The collection is rich with fascinating history. One can learn a great deal about the modernisation of Europe and the United States from studying and engaging with the collection.
What is interesting about the building the institution occupies?
The Barnes Foundation’s building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia opened in 2012 and was designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. It is a beautiful building with fantastic amenities including an auditorium, a restaurant, classrooms, a library and large event spaces. In our new home we are more accessible than ever to a wider audience, which is a very important to us.
The Barnes Foundation is open Wednesday–Monday, 10 am–5 pm. Adult admission costs from $22 to $25. The gallery's Renoir works are the subject of the documentary Renoir—Revered and Reviled on on show in Britain from February 16.