Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered for the annual Barnes–de Mazia Lecture at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, on May 10, 2022.

I’ve been going to museums my whole life, and of all the ones I’ve been to more than once and continue to revisit, the Barnes Foundation is the only one where each successive visit brings back the memory of the first one.

It took place in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I was recently out of college and living in New York and entertaining thoughts of a career as an art critic. A friend and I were chatting one day when, at some point, the Barnes came up. It emerged that neither of us had ever been there. He had a car and the weekend was looming, so I proposed that we drive down, “do” the Barnes in the morning, and move on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the afternoon.

He thought that was a fine idea, so we set out Saturday morning, arriving at the Barnes just as it opened. Admission paid, we walked into the Main Gallery. There, confronted by double-hung masterpieces by Seurat and Cézanne, individual works of equal stature by Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir, and an array of still lifes and portraits by Cézanne, we instantly experienced the aesthetic adrenaline rush of all time. I felt as if someone had attached defibrillator pads to my chest, my brain, and my eyeballs, turned the dial all the way up, and thrown the switch. And it was like that in every room for the rest of the day. We never made it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Instead, we stumbled out of the Barnes at closing time, overcome with that mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion that is the hallmark of an unforgettable museum experience.

I tell that story because it forms the germ of the idea I want to explore: why the Barnes Foundation matters.

Really? Surely after one hundred years the importance of the Barnes Foundation to the cultural life of the nation is a matter of such settled opinion as to be beyond dispute. The record is clear and well established. But this year marks not just its centenary but the tenth anniversary of its relocation from Merion to Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a move I and others opposed at the time but which I was happy to report was flawlessly executed. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when it reopened, “The [original] installation is so thoroughly and convincingly replicated that there are times you have to remind yourself that you’re on the parkway, not in Merion.” So it’s worth taking a moment to review and celebrate the reasons this museum matters.

There are few museums still able to connect us with the mind and taste of their founder. . . . the Barnes is one of them. 

It is a monument to the taste of one man. The holdings of our nation’s museums are made up of many different private collections, but the sense of the individual is lost in the larger identity of the host institution. There are few museums still able to connect us with the mind and taste of their founder. Along with places like the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Frick, and the Cone Collection, the Barnes is one of them.

And—this point doesn’t get made often enough—Barnes wasn’t an art professional. He was a scientist and entrepreneur who through self-education embraced modernism at a time when, to many in this country, it was still new, difficult, and even a little subversive. He was one of that small group of enlightened lay people at the beginning of the twentieth century who did so, the Steins, the Cones, and others among them.

Along with the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, both founded in the same decade as the Barnes, the Barnes Foundation brought the United States into the twentieth century in terms of advanced art and taste, thus setting it on a path to supplant Europe within a generation as the fountainhead of modernism.

The Barnes has probably the greatest collections of Matisses and Cézannes and one of the greatest collections of early modern painting to be found anywhere.

It has, from the beginning, played a pioneering role in art education, with the collection used as a teaching tool. The program has involved significant social outreach to, as Dr. Barnes put it, “people to whom such doors are usually locked.”

It was the first American art institution to collect the work of a black artist—Horace Pippin—and was a pioneer in the study of African art and its impact on modernism decades before the renowned scholar of the subject, Robert Goldwater, published his first monograph.

All this, as I say, is part of the public record. Nonetheless, there are, I think, two reasons to take up the question of why the Barnes matters today. The first is that it wasn’t so long ago that the question of why the Barnes matters—or whether it even matters at all—was very much on the table. For a decade or more beginning in the early 1990s, as the institution negotiated its future and, at times, even struggled to survive, there were some who believed that the Barnes didn’t matter, that it was a cultural anachronism antithetical to the art values of our time that needed to be transformed into a more conventional sort of art institution. One of the main charges laid against it centered on the non-chronological hanging. So it’s with wry amusement, not to mention a sense of satisfaction, that I note that such keystone institutions as moma have since come around to that approach.

Others felt the Barnes mattered, but only as a trophy, an asset, a financial instrument. What this tells us is that it’s good periodically to take stock of an institution and its values lest we fall into the trap of assuming it will last forever, only to wake up one day to find it has been irrevocably transformed, or has disappeared altogether. This has happened: you have only to think of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

The second reason is that an institution’s value is determined not just by its specific identity and accomplishments, but also by the context in which it operates at any given moment. And seen against the backdrop of the current cultural climate, the Barnes Foundation matters more than ever.

It’s no secret that our art institutions have been changing before our very eyes. In 1906 the great British art critic Roger Fry published an essay titled “Ideals of a Picture Gallery.” He had just been brought over by J. P. Morgan, to be the curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and had found an institution nowhere near the standard of the European museums he was used to. The collection had glaring holes and was installed higgledy-piggledy. There were many dubious attributions, some fakes, and works of such inferior quality they didn’t belong in a museum. His essay, published in the Met’s Bulletin, laid out his view of what an art museum’s mission should be. This was, he wrote, “the establishment of standards of truth and beauty, and the encouragement of a keener discrimination and a firmer faith.” That is, in so many words, the doctrine of art for art’s sake, and it became the governing principle of art museums in this country for a century or more afterwards. Museums collected and displayed masterpieces and other works of the highest caliber to educate the public about the art of the past—sometimes the recent past, as with moma.

Today, we see more and more museums moving away from that art-for-art’s-sake approach as they embrace social issues. The Barnes has bucked that trend, steadfastly discharging its mission, not just in its education program but also in the galleries, in the unique relationship they establish between artwork and viewer. Indeed, I would like to propose that even if the Barnes Foundation had never offered a single class, it would still qualify as an educational institution. I started by saying that upon entering the Main Gallery for the first time I was “confronted by” its stunning array of masterpieces. I used that word deliberately. We often hear about “encounters” with art. At the Barnes, you have a succession of confrontations—and not in a hostile way, I hasten to add. The sense in which I use the term is the same as did Leo Steinberg when he subtitled his critical anthology Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art: in the sense of intense engagement born out of curiosity, fascination, puzzlement, and revelation.

The installation seems designed to have the maximum amount of art in the minimum amount of space to create a total immersion in a world of art and creativity.

At the Barnes, it’s impossible to be a passive visitor. Everything about the place is geared to precipitate an immediate, intense engagement with the language of art. Let’s start with the way it’s configured. It’s no accident, it seems to me, that the galleries are all small, and that each wall is crowded with pictures. The standard museum installation hangs its artworks at eye level, all in a horizontal row with lots of space around them so you can focus on each one individually. But at the Barnes, no such polite detachment is permitted. The installation seems designed to have the maximum amount of art in the minimum amount of space to create a total immersion in a world of art and creativity.

Then, on each wall of every gallery are the famous ensembles—carefully thought-out arrangements of works of wrought iron and works of art selected and positioned based on their aesthetic affinity. Confronted with these you are immediately engaged. I like to survey the contents of a room and ask myself, what’s the shared element here? That forces me to study each work closely, moving back and forth between one and the other.

Next, you encounter one pairing that might catch your eye, such as a Cézanne still life and a Giorgione painting of two prophets set side by side in the Main Gallery. What is the meaning of this juxtaposition of modern and Renaissance, inanimate and animate, secular and religious? We could spend many visits pondering just that.

And then we come to the final touch: no labels, just the name of the artist. No words to distract you with reading rather than looking. Every step of the way, in other words, from the whole room to a single wall to individual paintings, we are drawn into a deeper and more intimate dialogue with the language of art.

This changed relationship between artwork and viewer we find at the Barnes produces, in its turn, a change in the one between artist and viewer. When I look at Matisse at moma or most any other museum, I am conscious of being in the presence of an accomplished master: the greatest painter of the twentieth century, one of the greatest artists of all time, and one whose achievement is so well-recognized and so thoroughly absorbed into our collective consciousness that we take it for granted.

But at the Barnes, I find myself in the presence of a working artist, looking over his shoulder and following his decisions, some of which, even today, can seem puzzling. And in so doing, far from taking him for granted, I become aware of just how bold he was, how thoroughly he was prepared to confound our notions of what constitutes compositional order, finish, and fidelity to nature as he labored to forge a new path, inventing a new language of art with which to record what he saw and experienced of the world.

Take Matisse’s Blue Still Life of 1907. First there is the issue of focus. In a still life from the Dutch Golden Age through Chardin to Cézanne, the focus is normally on the arrangement of objects on the tabletop. But here the patterned toile de Jouy competes for our attention with the fruit, and the floral patterning of the screen in the background competes with both. And the large jar, rather than being integrated into the still-life composition, seems to be a presence apart.

Then there are the two different types of space. The painting is rigorously flat, especially in the foreground where the pattern of the toile is coincident with the picture plane, and in the upper left where the background floral screen seems to be on the same plane as the nearby fruit and tabletop. At the same time, Matisse effects the suggestion of natural light and atmosphere suffusing the scene that opens it up spatially, particularly in the upper left. The contrast between the light-painted area and the dark, purplish one suggests, respectively, the fall of sunlight and shadow. Finally, there is the plethora of visual incident and almost total absence of any hierarchy that has our eye darting from one part to the next, unable to rest.

Or take the Seated Riffian from his second Moroccan visit five and a half years later. We know Matisse could draw like the angels, and that he’d internalized the architecture and engineering of the human figure as thoroughly as Michelangelo, in part by studying Michelangelo. So then what is going on with those legs? Flat, boneless, seemingly attached to nothing and coming out of nowhere, they look like cutouts—and not Matisse cutouts but a child’s paper-doll cutout. Then there is his face. The colors aren’t blended. Instead the face is a patchwork: green, matte red, and mustard, each one independent of the others.

Now we know there are explanations for all this. In the Blue Still Life, Matisse is trying to supplant the traditional compositional hierarchy of still life with an overall decorative harmony. We see glimmers of this in the emphasis given to the patterning of the toile and the sinuous linkage of top and bottom, left and right, near and far by the toile, the fruit on the table, and the flowered screen in the background. Also, while he’s hewing to the five-hundred-year-old tradition of naturalism by depicting atmospheric effects in terms of light and dark—witness the background again—he’s trying to arrive at a more modern, purely pictorial method of doing so by using intense color: hence the blazing hues of the fruit, particularly the lemon in the center and the orange at right.

He’ll get there, of course. Overall decorative pattering comes soon after in Harmony in Red and in the Barnes’s own Studio with Goldfish of 1912, with its saturated color. The deep blue and the dense black play off the pink of the sculpted figure and the myriad colors visible through the window. Miraculously, this assemblage asserts the flat canvas surface and opens up a deep, aerated space. But in the Blue Still Life the artist is between two aesthetic worlds, the one he was born into and the one he is creating, which is what makes this painting so fascinating and challenging.

As for the Riffian, rather than being concerned with capturing a likeness, Matisse here is concerned with conveying a presence, much like the Byzantine icons he so admired. The Rif were mountain tribesmen in Morocco known for their bravery and ferocity. Matisse wanted to convey that. And he was coping with the challenge of Moroccan light, which Pierre Schneider has described as different from Mediterranean light because it “does not seem to hit objects from the outside but to spring from within them.”

Art lovers know all this. But the average visitor isn’t likely to. It doesn’t matter, because at the Barnes they are invited to make a start, to take the first step toward understanding by asking of these pictures, what is going on here? Why does it look like that? How did this painter manage to achieve that effect? It invites the visitor to learn about art by looking at art, to arrive at an understanding of what an artist is doing in one work by comparing it with the way the same subject or a similar one is handled by other artists of the same era or an earlier one elsewhere in the galleries. In this way the Barnes imparts full agency to the visitor, to look, inquire, be puzzled, and discover by bringing the museum experience back to first principles: a confrontation between the visitor, the work, and the artist. This was Albert Barnes’s great faith: that ordinary people with no prior background, under the right circumstances—ones he strove to create in the galleries—could come to appreciate art. At a time of shifting cultural values, when the doctrine of art for art’s sake seems everywhere in retreat, that is more important than ever. That is why the Barnes Foundation matters.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 1, on page 49
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