About the Collection
The Barnes is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist paintings, with especially deep holdings in Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912 and 1951, the collection also includes important examples of African art, Native American pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, American avant-garde painting, and wrought-iron metalwork.
The minute you step into the galleries of the Barnes collection, you know you’re in for an experience like no other. Masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso hang next to ordinary household objects—a door hinge, a spatula, a yarn spinner. On another wall, you might see a French medieval sculpture displayed with a Navajo textile. These dense groupings, in which objects from different cultures, time periods, and media are all mixed together, are what Dr. Barnes called his “ensembles.”
The ensembles, each one meticulously crafted by Dr. Barnes himself, are meant to draw out visual similarities between objects we don’t normally think of together. Created as teaching tools, they were essential to the educational program Dr. Barnes developed back in the 1920s.
The main gallery upon entering the Barnes Foundation collection.
One of the first paintings purchased by Dr. Barnes.
Dr. Barnes began collecting in 1912. After making a fortune in the pharmaceutical business, he turned his attention to building “the greatest modern art collection” of his time. In February of that year, he sent his friend, the artist William Glackens, to Paris with instructions to bring back paintings by the French avant-garde. Glackens returned with 33 works, including Van Gogh’s The Postman (Joseph-Etienne Roulin) (1889) and Picasso’s Young Woman Holding a Cigarette (1901).
Dr. Barnes quickly established himself as a bold and ambitious collector, traveling frequently to New York and Paris, buying from dealers and sometimes directly from artists. Over the course of four decades, he assembled what is now considered one of the world's greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist European paintings, with works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Chaim Soutine.
Masterworks at the Barnes
The collection includes the world's largest holdings of paintings by Renoir (181) and Cézanne (69), as well as significant works by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gogh, and other renowned artists.
In 1922, Dr. Barnes chartered the Foundation as an educational institution for teaching people how to look at art. He was inspired by the writings of philosopher John Dewey, who emphasized the importance of education in a truly democratic society, and he decided to devote his whole collection to the project. He commissioned architect Paul Cret to design a gallery (the original building is still in Merion); he hired a teaching staff, including the legendary Violette de Mazia; and the Barnes Foundation opened for classes in 1925.
Meanwhile, Dr. Barnes continued to build his collection. Though still focused on European modernism, his interests extended into other areas as well. In the early 1920s, he added a stunning group of African masks and sculptures to his collection—there are over 100—which he acquired from the French art dealer Paul Guillaume. He also began to purchase Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles; old master paintings; ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art; and American and European decorative and industrial arts, including 887 wrought-iron objects.
Dr. Barnes continued collecting until his death in 1951. The wall ensembles are still arranged exactly as he left them.
Dr. Barnes, in his Merion gallery.
The ensembles created by Dr. Barnes combine art and craft, cosmopolitan and provincial styles, and objects from across periods and cultures.
Learn More about the Collection
Explore the Collection Online—in a New Way The design of our new collection online was inspired by Dr. Barnes and his approach to looking at art. You can now browse 3,000-plus objects by color, light, line, and space, making unexpected and exciting connections between pieces from different eras, places, and cultures.
Library, Archives, and Special Collections Want to learn more about Dr. Barnes, his collection, and the Barnes Foundation? Our archives, art library, and manuscript and rare book collections are rich research resources.
Conservation Our Conservation Department has the difficult but rewarding task of caring for the art collection.