Skip to content Skip to footer

African Art in the Barnes Foundation: The Triumph of L'Art Negre and the Harlem Renaissance by Christa Clarke

April 29, 2015

Philadelphia — African Art in the Barnes Foundation is the first comprehensive catalogue on the African objects collected by Dr. Albert C. Barnes. This sumptuous title completes a vision set forth by Barnes himself almost nine decades ago, when Primitive Negro Sculpture, the first book on any area of his collection, was published (1926). Although the Barnes Foundation is widely known for its collection of post-impressionist and early modern art, its African collection has long been central to the Foundation’s progressive educational mission. One of the first people in the United States to collect and display African objects as works of art, not ethnographic specimens, Barnes considered African art the purest expression of three-dimensional form and ranked it among the world’s great art traditions. He also diverged from the thinking of the day in his view of African art as an advanced art form, not a primitive one.

Barnes assembled his African art collection between 1922 and 1924 in five large purchases from Paul Guillaume, a dealer in Paris. As Barnes told Guillaume in 1922, his aim was to have “the best private collection of Negro sculpture in the world." Barnes arranged the resulting assemblage of more than 120 African works in the Foundation's galleries, amid art of all periods and cultures, to highlight its formal aesthetic properties and to help students and visitors see connections between the African art and art from other places. The African collection includes numerous figural sculptures, ceremonial masks, and domestic objects such as heddle pulleys, cups, tobacco mortars, stools, and headrests. Because Guillaume was French, most of the works that he sold Barnes originated in francophone African colonies—Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and the Congo.

A luminous essay by Christa Clarke presents the latest scholarship on this unexplored and under-published collection. African Art in the Barnes Foundation features detailed catalogue entries by preeminent scholars in African studies and art history, completing a monograph that will long serve as an important resource in the field.

A talk and book signing will be held at the Barnes Foundation during the First Friday: Root Down: African Journeys programming on Friday, June 5, from 6-9 pm.


Christa Clarke, PhD, Senior Curator, Arts of Global Africa at the Newark Museum, NJ. A specialist in historic and contemporary African Art, Clarke received her PhD from the University of Maryland.


The Barnes Foundation was established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” The Barnes holds one of the world’s finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings, with extensive works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, and Giorgio de Chirico; works by American masters Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Horace Pippin, and Maurice Prendergast; Old Master paintings; important examples of African sculpture; Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles; decorative arts and ironwork; and antiquities from the Mediterranean region and Asia. 

While most collections are grouped by chronology, style, or genre, art at the Barnes is arranged in ensembles structured according to light, line, color, and space—principles that Dr. Barnes called “the universal language of art.” The Foundation’s programs include First Fridays, young professionals nights, tours, tastings, and family programs, as well as Barnes–de Mazia Education Program courses and workshops. These programs advance the Foundation’s mission through progressive, experimental, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The Barnes Foundation is open Wednesday–Monday, and tickets can be purchased on-site, online, or by calling 215.278.7200. Ticket prices and current hours are listed on our website. 

The Barnes Arboretum in Merion contains more than 2,500 varieties of trees and woody plants, many of them rare. Founded in the 1880s by Joseph Lapsley Wilson and expanded under the direction of Laura Leggett Barnes, the living collections include 40 state champion trees, a Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus), a dove tree (Davidia involucrata), a monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), and a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Other important plant collections include lilacs, peonies, Stewartias, ferns, medicinal plants, hostas, and magnolias. The Horticulture Education Program has offered a comprehensive three-year certificate course in the botanical sciences, horticulture, garden aesthetics, and design since its establishment in 1940 by Mrs. Barnes. The arboretum also offers horticulture workshops and lectures and is open to the public Saturday–Sunday during the summer months. Tickets can be purchased on-site, online, or by calling 215.278.7200. Ticket prices and current hours are listed on our website. 



Jan Rothschild, Senior Vice President for Communications 
Deirdre Maher, Director of Communications

Jessica C. Napp, Associate Director of Publicity