The Art Collection of Dr. Barnes. In short: Ew.


The first thing that annoyed me about my visit to the Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia was the building.

The taxi dropped me off right in front of the place and, as I stood there staring at it on a cold Sunday morning in January, I could not tell where the entrance was. At first, I thought that this was just a too-clever design by an architect trying to be relevant in a world that tolerates whatever Frank Gheary throws at it. But now I understand that the museum’s imposing facade is simply in keeping with its mission to make sure that visitors are thoroughly demoralized by their experience of the people and the art of the Barnes Foundation.

By following someone who looked as if he knew where he was going I discovered that the entrance to the museum is located on the back side of the building. Once inside, the lack of signage in the lobby gives you ample opportunity to be scolded by attendants when you wander past the inconspicuous gallery attendants, searching for a coat check or an admissions desk or the art as you blunder your way through the elaborate entrance formalities — guards tapping your tote bag with a wooden stick to appraise its girth, trudging downstairs to secure a locker for your over-sized tote, the quest for officially-approved see-through plastic bags withheld  by unhelpful coat check staff  for the stuff you don’t want to leave in the flimsy lockers…those were the second, third, and fourth things that annoyed me about the Barnes. Finally, you are permitted to find your way towards the galleries, which are located in an airy, well-lighted inner sanctum of the museum.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872 – 1951) was a Philadelphia physician and chemist who made a huge pile of money in pharmaceuticals at the turn of the last century and spent a lot of his fortune acquiring a connoisseur collection of 20th century art.


The Barnes Foundation faithfully preserves Dr. Barnes’s highly eccentric theories on art appreciation by meticulously reproducing the way he hung his pictures…

P1130736…in groupings that allegedly highlight his important theories of line, light, color, and space. (You can’t take pix inside the Barnes so I’m showing you the rooms as they appear in the Barnes catalog.)


Dr. Barnes mixed his pictures with furniture and industrial hardwares that “enhanced” the esthetic philosophy that he wanted to teach to all classes of people so that they could achieve enlightenment.


Dr. Barnes was, by all accounts, a liberal and generous man. He paid his pharmaceutical factory workers very well and encouraged them to find uplifting things to do in their leisure time and welcomed them to visit his collection to study fine art for their betterment.

I have not bothered to learn a thing about Dr. Barnes’ philosophy of art because:

1. He takes art waaaay too seriously.

2. His writings are still in manuscript form and are about 1,000 pages long.

3. His theories of art are clearly wacky.

Now here is where I tell you about the docent that pissed me off. When I turned in my $40 ticket for my docent-led tour, I was told that I’d have to wear a headset in order to hear the docent who was scheduled to do my tour because he had a very soft voice. I don’t know about you, but I do not pay $40 for the privilidge of wearing some greasy old previously-worn headphones. So I complained that I would not have booked the tour if I’d known I’d have to wear their cootie-ridden headphones. (I didn’t say cootie, I’m not that crazy.)  And the gallery attendant tried to cow me with, “But Jonas is one of our best docents!” And I , not having been born yesterday, said, “Well, jeeze, you would say that.” And I meant it to sting.

So Jonas the docent shows up and he’s about 90 years old, cadaverously thin and stooped over, and I’m going to be generous and say that those wet spots on his grimy  khakis were drops of Darjeeling tea that he’d just spilled on his pants. And he tells me, when I refuse to put on those filthy headphones, that “all the museums in Europe use headphones”. “I don’t  [give a rat’s ass]  care what they do in Europe,” I told him, and he shrugged and whispered in his delicate wheeze, “There’s always one in every group.” Whatever that means. So I listened to him for five minutes and it was obvious that old Jonas was giving the Impressionism for Dummies version of art history. Nothing that you wouldn’t have already known if you’ve ever read a Wikipedia entry on the subject. So I went rogue.

I went through the Barnes all on my own, and this is when I found the next-to-last thing that annoyed me about the place. It was all those ugly pictures! In my opinion, Dr. Barnes’ collection suffers in quality and relevance by its preponderance of paintings by that over-rated hack, Pierre Auguste Renoir:


I loathe Renoir. His stuff looks like it should be decorating tins of cheap butter cookies sold by WalMart. His work looks so knock-off to me.


Dr. Barnes bought 181 Renoir paintings, and many, many, many of them are pictures are of what Barnes himself called “fat nudes”:


I detest the way all of  Renoir’s figures look to be boneless, arms and legs as limp as worms and torsos that look as if they were made of bread dough. I abhor the way his brush strokes seem tentative, as if he has  no idea where the edges are and can only guess where the background ends and the foreground begins. I detest his garish sense of color. And I find his subject matter insipid. And look at the faces of these ladies: they are UGLY!!!

The only painter I like less than Renoir is Cezanne:


Dr. Barnes has 70 paintings by Cezanne, and they are all depressing.  Cezanne also can’t paint a figure that looks remotely human (see above) or attractive (see above). I, for one, would not pay one cent to look at an ugly nude (see above) least of all if I had to pay $5 million for it (the going rate for a Cezanne these days — it’s said that the entire Barnes collection is worth $25 billion, so Dr. Barnes certainly knew how to invest his money).

529_600_bf300_i2rCezanne landscapes lack poetry, narrative, or even a point of view. How would you feel about this vapid landscape hanging in your living room???


Cezanne is famous for inventing a style  that look as if the canvases have been vigorously scrubbed with paint, as if painting is a really, really, REALLY hard thing to do. I, for one, am not hoodwinked by the theatrics.

And here’s the last thing that annoyed me about the Barnes: I was the only person I saw without a head set. Because even if you don’t take one of their lame docent-led tours, people gobble up the  self-guided audio tour that lets you use your smart phone as your guide. That, coupled with the fact that the galleries are designed to enforce a certain viewing experience that conforms with Dr. Barnes’ weirdo-o “vision” of fine art, means that the Barnes goes out of its way to mediate every interaction you will have with the art that is hanging on its walls. It’s like the Barnes is the Matrix of the art world.

Jeeze. If I’d wanted such a passive, consumerist experience I would have just stayed home and watched TV.

But, unfettered by Barnes propaganda, I did manage to have a few delightful moments with art as I roamed untethered in its halls. I adore this little portrait by an unnonymous North German Master:


I would have hung that portrait between these two superlative Van Goghs:



Instead, Dr. Barnes made these Van Gogh pictures the book-ends to some icky Renoirs and some drab Cezannes:


It was near this room that I again crossed paths with Jonas the docent, still whispering his insights to his sheep-like followers, telling them that “when you look at a medieval religious painting and you see someone with a halo that means that’s a saint.” As my mother used to say…”No shit, Sherlock.”

I should mention that I went to Philadelphia to meet my brother, who went to the Barnes with me and who also ditched the docent and wandered around looking at all the cool stuff I liked. We spent an hour and a half in the galleries and then Jimmy (my brother) loaded us in his Camry and drove us up Broad Street towards the ancestral home in the Philadelphia suburbs. At one tricky 5-point intersection a guy driving a beat-up Honda in front of us made a bone-headed left turn into traffic and as my brother hit the brakes he said , “What a docent.” And he meant it to sting.

The weather experts tell us that we’re going to be blasted with the first real Winter Blizzard this weekend in the Northeast of the U.S.A.!! Yes, I have my Champagne-o-Meter at the ready and in case we get snowed-in I have my survival plan all set.  I’m reading the biography of the most fabulous governor that Texas ever had, Ann Richards, and I have plenty of popcorn and strawberries in the larder. What more do I need?

Have a great week-end, y’all.

24 Comments, RSS

  1. Deborah

    I know you’ve had an impact on me when the first thing I think upon hearing about the blizzard of the century hitting NY is, “oooh! Chapmpagne-o-meter!”

    The tour of the Barnes museum made me take stock of the art on my walls. In the living room a poster of the Monet exhibit we attended in Chicago in 1995 (more commeoration than aesthetics); a David Hockney (Garrowby Hill)that I love; 2 works I just liked but don’t know (and don’t care)who the artist is; two photos — one by me. A couple of Swift books of art on the table under the Monet poster. Still lots of room left on the walls for silver industrial hardware. I have a long way to go to compete with Dr. Barnes.

  2. It must be Friday:)
    Love how you say what’s really on your mind:)
    I hate the building.
    Your ferns and fronds and palms are perfect to me..I can’t seem to do anything 3 dimensional.At all.
    Used earphones..Ugh.
    I think the Renoir issue is all the umbrellas..cookie tins.. shoe bags we see:)Large gilt framed repros in people’s homes…

  3. Christine

    Thanks for the tour! I appreciate seeing many places I’ve never been through your eyes and by your grace. Your Christmas card paintings give me more joy everyday than anything from the Barnes museum.
    Stay safe and warm this weekend! It’s more fun to hibernate when your power stays on.

  4. So glad to have your review of the Barnes!

    Last year we visited Philadelphia. I knew you had to reserve in advance to get into the Barnes, but I didn’t realize that meant WEEKS in advance. The only times there were openings, for the time I was there, after I was actually in Philadelphia were at 4:45, and it closes at 5:00!

    Having read your review, I don’t feel so bad about not getting to visit!

    I already knew that they kept the display the way Barnes wanted it to be (requirements in his will…………), but didn’t know about the headphones, watered-down-to-worthless tour, etc.


    I’m glad you found a few things that you were glad to see.

  5. janet bellusci

    i know there is an entire group of RABID folks who detest that the original dr. barnes collection was moved, but had no idea that the experience at the new museum was so “directed” ~ as an independent new york gal, i,too, would have been turned off.

    i was a little shocked at (but thoroughly enjoyed) your response to renoir and cezanne. but your choices of van gogh ~ well, how can anyone argue?

    up here in the mid-hudson valley, at our old farmhouse, the shovels are ready (front door and back door), refrigerator stocked, champagne waiting. let’s have ourselves a blizzard!!

  6. Sandy R

    Well I will certainly avoid the Barnes – and I have to agree with your opinions on those Masters – I have long thought them overrated (ugly)and now I feel empowered to actually say it out loud!!
    Snowing now (across the LI pond) and honkered down, but alas no Champagne here!! Stay safe.

  7. I LOVED this post! As someone who trained to be a curator, whenever I see fuss-pot museum arrangement (or some of the the nightmare galleries that are in a museum here- Mexican art in puce-colored rooms) I just can’t help but get the itch to CLEAN IT UP. It sounds like a complete, dusty nightmare. *shiver* You made the right call with the headphones, too. I’m sure there’s some esoteric and forgotten disease that is transferred via ears that lives on those headphones and it’s only a matter of time before it rears its ugly head and the source of the re-contamination will be a museum headset. (And yes, I am being serious- I will not put my head near any public headrest (movie seats, restaurant seating, etc) unless I put my jacket up to cover it. *shiver*

    Seeing your art after all that fussiness was like a breath of fresh air. Thank you for cleansing the palette.

  8. Gigi

    From the moment I opened the book box from Amazon and leafed through When Wanderers Cease to Roam, I have been convinced that we share some peculiar DNA. I mean that in the nicest way! I, too, am a veteran docent ducker. I savor the experience of being one of the few visitors at a museum who is not propelled along by audio recordings, compelled to stop at each and every numbered station. I like to think that I can prepare for a visit to a museum by actually *reading* about the artists, works on display, and notable historical influences quite on my own. If I like the information posted on the walls, I’ll generally go back for more detail – after I’ve punted my way through the galleries. I don’t think my attitude comes from some ill-based sense of superiority or snootiness. But more from my inherently rebellious attitude (I actually prefer your term *rogue*) exemplified by my tendency to always sit in the back of classrooms to maintain perspective – thinking my own thoughts. Such is my attitude toward travel – I don’t *do* cruises, either. And I agree – the building exterior is ghastly.

  9. Rachel

    Well, as someone who had encouraged you to visit the Barnes, I apologize.

    I do use the audio tour at the Getty, served up on their iPhone with a headset, BUT I use my own little earbuds from my MP3 player to listen in. Wonder if that works on the docent tour sets?

    My own docent story, for several years I worked at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, which has a super crew of *red coats* mostly guys and indeed from WWII and Korea days. At an art museum, a docent will usually give you the info, good or bad, about the time, style, work, etc of what you are seeing. However, our guys would usually start their tour with *When I flew that plane…* and it was a great trip from there on. Sadly we are losing those gentlemen at a rapid pace these days.

  10. Joan

    That building looks like a place for storing criminals. Way ugly. The way the paintings are hung according to the good doctor, looks very lame to my inexperienced eyes. I agree with your assessment of Renoir and Cezanne. I love Van Gogh, Vermeer, Mary Cassat,

    Your newly applied brush strokes are very nice…it’s hard to learn new techniques, to break away from the tried and true, the familiar. New muscle memory has to be developed which takes lots of practice.

  11. Parisbreakfast

    Love it
    Love it
    Love it
    Have you considered stand-up comedy as an alternative to pushing a brush?
    Really the New Yorker could use you big time
    I completely agree on Cezanes nudes but he could whoop an orange upside the head gorgeously especially in watercolor. Take a look and be surprised.
    Renoir I’m totally with you. I do think that bevy of nudes look an awful lot like the limp Maine Coon prize winners I saw at the cat show….ahem
    Yr watercolor has hints of Hockney in a very wonderful way – lo e the palm fronds on the left especially.
    Bravo on all counts!

  12. Parisbreakfast

    Btw I have NEVER seen groups in Europe museums wearing headphones.
    Never. Individually sure but not lead groups.
    This idiot is sooo wrong.

  13. its so interesting to read your take on things, art being your passion you certainly have well founded arguments. thanks for the new found phobia on headsets, not like i was using them, but now i will have a panic attack on sight… i have used my phone on tours before and really enjoyed “wikipedia” on the move… but then i am easily entertained 😉

    speaking of art and entertainment, i know you have wicked sense of humor but not how sure you like obscure books, i am reading sacre bleu by christpoher moore, if you want a little art humor check it out, renoir keeps complaining how thin all the models are. and if you want to carry art a wee bit farther, read the fang family. 2 very refreshingly different books, just like yours are~

  14. Tracey

    I went to Philly for the first time last month with friends. We saw the Fine Art Museum, which was great! We want to go back. I loved the bronze griffins on the roof.

    The Barnes sounds like something I will miss. I do think the two fluffy dogs in the Renoir were adorable- perhaps he should have concentrated more on animals.

    The Brooklyn Museum of Art is going to have an exhibit of John Singer Sargent watercolors in April! If you go, that should wipe the memory of the Barnes. I try to avoid tours and head sets myself.

  15. Jeannie

    I think the building is appropriate for the art within – unappealing! I really enjoyed your take on the art and the museum. I always thought I didn’t know squat about art because I didn’t like Renoir. His paintings always reminded me of the ones you would find hanging in a sleazy $39/night motel. When I read the cookie tin observation, coffee spewed forth! LOL! I love the brush stroke exercise. It is one of those things that I know I should explore, but then it gets moved to the bottom of the list. Perhaps the next snow storm? I am glad to see I am in good company as I too thought of Champagne O Meter as soon as I heard about Nemo. Keep warm and cozy!

  16. Laura

    The Art of the Steal is a documentary film about how Dr. Barnes collection was “stolen” from his will by Philadelphia. It provides a “backstory” to what Ms. Swift shared in this post. Watch it and tell me what you think?

  17. First time commenter here but had to say THANK YOU for mentioning those damn headphones. I recall seeing a Da Vinci exhibit and running into a friend who exclaimed ‘but where are your headphones?’. Seriously? Am I not allowed to look and think on my own? or have we all lost that capability..

  18. Oh, so true! I visited the Barnes Collection years and years ago and was repelled by the sheer quantity. I maintain that he, along with Baltimore’s Cone sisters, are not renowned collectors. When you buy everything in sight, you get lucky once in a while. Give me a well-edited collection anytime. However, I’m glad you went, for no other reason that to provide me some entertainment this morning. Paris Breakfasts is a a friend of mine here in Paris, so I’m looking forward to see you here this spring.

  19. Sally

    It’s always nice to hear one’s own opinions voiced by someone else, so it was a pleasure to hear your take on Cezanne (as well as the Michelin-man Renoir nudes). There’s at least one still life of his featuring what appears to be dishes that are so off-center that they must be factory rejects. Did he mean the painting to be distressing? And yet, the painting at the Musee D’Orsey that most riveted me was the small “House of the Hanged Man” by Cezanne, a grizzly name, but the small picture was so effective in drawing me in that I could barely believe the label giving the name of the artist.

    I too avoid docents, except in one notable case at the Storm King Art Center. A friend’s mother, who used to be a docent there, accompanied us, so we got in for free, thus proving the old adage, “Cheaper by the docent.” Sorry.

    Nice tropical leaves.

  20. Kate

    Before everyone throws Renoir under the bus check out La Loge it is a masterpiece!Every time I see it I am overwhelmed.And what about Dance at Le Moulin de la Gallette?Or Luncheon of the boating party.I have looked at alot of art in my life and sure there are paintings from every artist that aren’t my taste and that goes for Mr.Monet and Van Gogh but Renoir is far more than a few fat nudes.

  21. Gitana

    Paris Breakfast is right: the New Yorker so needs you! For this inveterate “rogue” museum visitor, your post said it all. Like PB, I like me some Cezanne still life paintings. Stay safe and warm!

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