Living with and studying good paintings offers greater interest, variety, and satisfaction than any other pleasure known to man.
– Albert C. Barnes, physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, educator, and founder of the Barnes Foundation
A trip to any city is not complete without exploring its fine art museums. Philadelphia is blessed with many, and we were fortunate to view and admire the many famous paintings, sculptures, and other objets d’art housed within the city’s museums.
The Barnes Foundation
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the Barnes Foundation, which was established in 1922 to “promote the appreciation of the fine arts.” Founder Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) grew up poor in working-class Philadelphia. He eventually earned his medical degree in at the University of Pennsylvania and made his money partnering to set up a pharmaceutical manufacturer. In 1908, he bought out his partner and launched the A.C. Barnes Company. His company produced Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound that was used to treat gonorrhea and served as a preventative of gonorrheal blindness in newborns. Argyrol preceded the advent of antibiotics. The pharmaceutical company made him rich, and he sold his company months before the crash of 1929 to focus on his art collection and educational activities.
He began seriously buying art in 1912, relying on former schoolmate, painter William J. Glackens, to advise him and purchase artwork in Paris on his behalf. Barnes educated his factory workers, setting up reading and discussion programs on topics that included aesthetics and art criticism. With encouragement from his friend John Dewey at Columbia University, he established his foundation. He collected one of the world’s most important holdings of post-impressionist and early modern paintings, including works by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir, and snagged major works by van Gogh, Rousseau, and Modigliani. He also purchased African sculpture, Pennsylvania German furniture, Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles, American paintings, Mediterranean and Asian antiquities, and wrought iron objects from Europe and the United States. He presented his collection as ensembles, carefully and purposefully arranged across several galleries.
The original site of the Barnes Foundation was at the Merion campus, where in 1922 Barnes commissioned Paul Philippe Cret to design the gallery, administration building, and residence amid a 12-acre arboretum. The current museum is at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway (215.278.7100). Barnes’s collection was incredible, and I’m thankful that my local Philly friends recommended that I put it on our itinerary. The building itself is beautiful and it’s on the way to the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My sister Heidi recommended the documentary, The Art of the Steal (2009), which chronicles the battle for the control of Barnes’s $25 billion collection. After his death, despite his will stipulating that his art not be divided and sold off, the Philadelphia Museum of Art took control of part of his collection.
The Rodin Museum
Hailed as “the greatest collection of sculpture by August Rodin (1840-1917) outside of Paris,” the Rodin Museum (2154 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130, 215.763.8100), designed by French architect Paul Cret (1876-1945), opened in 1929. The “intimately scaled” museum, which has been newly restored, boasts Beaux-Arts architecture and is surrounded by French landscape designer Jacques Greber’s (1882-1962) formal French garden. Philadelphia native Jules E. Mastbaum, who was an entrepreneur and philanthropist, gifted his Rodin collection and founded the museum. The City responded, with more than 390,000 visitors its first year, enjoying Rodin’s sculptures both inside the museum and in the gardens. This is a beautiful museum all the way around – manageable and not overwhelming, with Rodin’s work nicely displayed.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is among the largest museums in the country, with more than 2,000 years of more than 227,000 paintings, sculptures, works on paper, photography, decorative arts, textiles, and architectural settings from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the U.S. Rocky Balboa, from the movie Rocky made the steps leading up to the museum famous with his spirited sprint to the top and fist-waving before the view of the City. The museum is massive and we tried to see as many galleries as we could.
Today, actually, is the last day of special exhibit “Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” which highlights internationally celebrated architect Frank Gehry’s vision for the renewal and expansion of the museum. Gehry is known for his “expressive sculptural forms of buildings,” including the Guggenheim Museum in Balboa, Spain. The exhibit includes a video of Gehry talking about his vision and large-scale models showing cross sections of the reimagined museum, which he and his team have been working on since 2006. The museum is currently raising funds to build it, which could take years.