Visit to the Barnes

If you’re from Philadelphia, you’ve probably heard of the Barnes at one point or another. The Barnes Foundation is an art gallery and arboretum in Lower Merion, which is one of the richest suburbs in the area. To give you an idea, Kobe Bryant attended Lower Merion High School, and took Brandy as his date for prom. The Barnes is surrounded by rolling expanses of green grass, high iron fences, and large stone mansions. It has also been at the center of a controversial lawsuit for over a decade now.

The Barnes Foundation was founded in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy art collector. Barnes was somewhat of an eccentric. He always felt that he was shunned by Philadelphia’s high society, because his father was a butcher. (He may also have been looked down upon because he made his money selling a treatment for gonorrhea. But who knows.) Access to the art collection was permitted only through writing a letter. Some rejection letters were signed by Barnes’ dog– I’m not really sure if this shows that he had a sense of humor, or if he was merely a bitter vindictive man. In any case, he’s certainly quite an interesting character, and after visiting his gallery I’d definitely like to learn more about that time in Philadelphia art history.

Today, the Barnes holds 800+ Impressionist and Modernist artworks worth more than $25 billion. These paintings are rarely seen, due in part to the location of the Foundation (it’s not exactly easy to get to), as well as the terms of Barnes’ will. According to his will, the public can only come in for viewings 2 days a week; the art should be used primarily for student study; works should not be lent out; no color reproductions; no tours; no tours of other art. However, due to a number of factors (financial, etc.) the Barnes will was challenged in court and the collection is scheduled to be moved to the Ben Franklin Parkway in 2012.


The whole mess is still being tangled up in court, but the Foundation will be closing its doors to the public July 3rd, so my mom, my sister and I decided to trek over and take a look at the art the way Barnes originally meant it to be viewed, before it’s too late.

We made our appointment a few days in advance, and checked in with the guard after we found parking in the neighborhood. With our tickets in hand, we entered the gallery– the site of so much controversy. The Barnes Foundation is essentially a large, stately house where Barnes and his wife lived (closed off to the public), situated directly next to a large rectangular building which houses the majority of the art collection. The second floor was closed off to us since some of the paintings are already being prepped for transfer, but we were still able to see the first floor rooms.

The artwork (and there is a TON) was hung all over, in addition to Dutch Pennsylvanian furniture, German chests, candlesticks, chairs, and wrought-iron light switches and door pulls. Every room was filled with works of art I’d never seen before, from masters such as Degas, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Rousseau, Picasso, etc. etc. The artwork inside is complemented by the arboretum outside.

Side note– did you know I worked in an arboretum? 3 years in college. So I have a special place in my heart for arboretums. There was an enormous lawn (perfect for large garden parties or weddings), ponds stocked with koi, a teahouse in the woods (that was probably the same size as my last studio apartment), a lilac garden, rose garden, and more.

It was quite lovely and I wonder what will happen to it all if and when the art is moved downtown. Anyway, all in all it was a nice outing– we’ll have to see what happens in 2012!


One Comment on “Visit to the Barnes

  1. Felicia, I just barely saw the documentary “The Art of the Steal” (i think that was the name) and it was all about the Barnes Foundation and how it was basically “stolen” by the city of Philadelphia! That’s pretty cool you got to go see it in person!

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