Rare Masterpieces from a Hidden Collection
Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review
ONE of the greatest art collections in the world went on show for the first -- and only -- time in Europe recently at the Music d'Orsay in Paris. The exhibition, entitled From Cezanne to Matisse: Masterpieces from the Barnes Foundation, comprised seventy-two works from one of the most extraordinary collections of French paintings of the later part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. The works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Manet, Monet, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Douanier Rousseau, Picasso and Modigliani could not have found a better setting for this former main line railway station with its elegant facade and airy glass and iron structures enabled the collection to be shown in true style and splendour.
Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) from 1912 until his death -- but more especially between the two world wars -- thanks to the fortune he made from an antiseptic which he developed and patented, the collection of the Barnes Foundation amounts to almost two thousand works of art, amongst which is a magnificent collection of French paintings, covering the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods. Despite the wealth of its collections up to now, the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, has remained relatively inaccessible to the general public. Indeed if Albert Coombs Barnes had his way the collection would never have been shown, as the physician kept his collection under wraps, specifically precluding access to it. When he died he left specific instructions that public access to his collection was not to be granted. It took a court order ten years later to ensure that the collection was opened for weekend viewing, and recently the necessity of major repair work on the Foundation's premises led to the collection being lent for a travelling exhibition which began at Washington's National Gallery of Art.
Contrary to the impression that you may have gathered, Albert Barnes was, in the words of Horace Mann Bond, President of Lincoln University, (a distinguished private and predominantly African American school founder in 1854), 'a very great American . . . an original American personality'. It was Barnes' conviction that ordinary people -- rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated -- can understand and share in the full range of aesthetic experience. His achievements in the realms of art, education and serious aesthetic scholarship, his optimism about American values, civil rights, and race relations were substantial, says Richard J. Wattenmaker, Director of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 'The essence of Dr. Barnes's legacy, which holds decisively contemporary meaning, is an abiding faith in the common man'. A bold and original collector, Dr. Barnes left his mark on art and education, as he did on chemistry and business.
My only criticism of the exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay was that the finest works were to be found in the first section rather than liberally sprinkled throughout the show. This section featured twenty Cezanne canvases, sixteen Renoirs, as well as a striking collection of Manet and Monet. Undoubtedly the most impressive of the Cezannes was the series, The Card Players. In the larger canvas the three players seated at the table are painted with great amplitude, the stern folds of their bulky clothes amplified by their broadly sloping shoulders and ham-fisted hands, while closely watching the game behind them a man stands smoking a pipe. However, the smaller version of this painting showing two players, one of whom is actually smoking a pipe, achieves a greater degree of intimacy and involvement.
Among the other Cezanne oils were two portraits of his wife, the famous and controversial Bathers at Rest (Les baigneurs au repos), and the various landscape and still life scenes. In the latter category I would single out Compotier, Pitcher, and Fruit (Nature morte), a picture remarkable in its absolute resolution and grandeur which stands amongst the most joyous and sumptuous of his career. …