When I was younger, I used to have a hard time finding women friends. I had a really tight circle of friends in high school but it seemed harder and harder as I got older to find people that I connected with, and who didn’t like playing irritating girly games. Oddly, the confluence of knitting and the internet has given me the chance to meet some amazing people whom I otherwise might never have connected with due simply to geography. One of these amazing people is Kristi, who lives in Massachusetts. We met via Ravelry and then Facebook, and we’ve gotten to be great friends without actually spending that much time (as the young kids say) IRL together.
Kristi needed a break and she decided to come to Philadelphia. So we vacuumed Little Miss’s pink palace and I picked Kristi up at the airport on Friday afternoon. We began with a quick trip to the diner, then I took Kristi to our local Wegman’s (she had never actually been inside one and was wondering what all the fuss was about), then it was back to the house in time for the kids to be home from school. We finished our exotic and luxurious night in the suburbs with a Bertucci’s dinner…(Thankfully, Kristi, like me, is one of those people who doesn’t really care what we do because the important thing is spending time together.)
The big treat was Saturday morning: we had tickets to the Barnes Institute. I sometimes forget that people outside the Philly area aren’t familiar with the Barnes. Dr. Albert Barnes made his fortune in chemistry and pharmaceuticals–specifically, he co-invented a compound derived from silver that was used as an antiseptic.
(Sometimes tour guides at the Barnes get squeamish about telling you that a primary use for Argyrol was eliminating blindness in infants caused by gonorrhea infection.)
Barnes was interested in art and began collecting. Luckily for the world, he had really good taste, or rather his good friend William Glackens had really good taste. Glackens himself was a painter (of the Ash Can school) and Barnes commissioned him to purchase “modern” art in Paris. After Barnes sold his business, he became a full-time art student, teacher, and collector, amassing an amazing collection of works by well-known European artists like Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso, along with less-universally known artists like his friend Glackens, Prendergast, Demuth and others. Barnes collected other types of art, including African art; Egyptian, Greek and Roman art; and decorative arts (including many charming folk-art style painted chests).
Barnes was kind of an
oddball iconoclast in his presentation of his collection. He built a mansion in the Philly ‘burbs to house it, but he also had a disdain for traditional art history and the way museums were set up. Accordingly, he displayed his art in his own way. Instead of a single painting with a spotlight on it, with plenty of white space around it, Barnes hung multiple canvases together, stacking them up to the ceiling. He mixed artists and genres, and mixed masterpieces in with “lesser” works, believing that this enhanced one’s appreciation of the individual pieces. He surrounded art with decorative pieces, chests and chairs on the floor, hasps and hinges and decorative hooks on the walls. Barnes himself was kind of obsessive, and arranged and rearranged the works constantly. (The museum currently displays the arrangement that was in place on the day he died.)
Barnes limited access to his collection and required people to send written applications for admission. He sometimes would reject applications for admission by sending letters signed by his dog. He didn’t cater to the famous; in one reported case, he rejected T.S. Eliot with one word: “nuts.” In fact, he favored allowing the unknown art lover in to see his collection instead of the famous critic or celebrity; it’s said that author James Michener had to disguise himself as a steelworker to get in. Barnes was killed in an auto accident in the 1950s, but his legacy lived on in the form of his foundation. Barnes did not want his collection to be carved up and sold after his death, particularly to the art establishment that he had so often feuded with, so he left specific provisions in his will: no loaning or selling of pieces of the collection, no moving the pieces from the way he displayed them, and requiring the foundation remain an educational institution open to the public on at least certain days.
Over time, the trustees of the Barnes decided to appeal to the courts for permission to contravene some of the specific terms of Barnes’ will in order to make the collection more accessible and presumably more secure. The legal wrangling went on for years (and is a whole ‘nother story) but in the end, a new museum was built in Center City, preserving the shape and size of the rooms in the original mansion.
It seems as though the trustees of the Barnes and the designers of the new gallery did a really good job balancing the needs of a world-class collection of rare works to be seen by the public and studied by art historians with the desire of Dr. Barnes to maintain his collection intact, in the unique way he wished it to be displayed.
To give you a feel for what is contained within the walls of the Barnes, here are some numbers:
- 181 works by Renoir
- 69 works by Cezanne
- 59 by Matisse
- 46 by Picasso
- 18 by Rousseau
- 11 by Degas
- 7 by Van Gogh
- 6 by Seurat
along with works by Gaugin, Soutine, Monet, Manet, Utrillo, and more….oils, pastels, pencil sketches as well as vases, tables, chairs, hooks, tiles, artifacts from Egypt, African artwork, even Native American pottery and blankets.
It was overwhelming and wonderful.
After our morning at the Barnes, we met up with Sally and Bridget for lunch at an Italian restaurant. We laughed and laughed and laughed and had such an amazing time.
We wandered around the city and of course ended up at Loop.
(Craig Rosenfeld: You may want to count your buttons. Bridget looks like she is trying to slip some in her pocket in that photo.)
we followed Bridget home and so she finally opened the door and let us in Bridget kindly invited us in to her home so we could see Dug:
pushed us out the door bid us a fond adieu, we hovered around outside her door for a little while
but when it became clear she wouldn’t let us in again, we left….
Kristi had to catch an early morning flight on Sunday, and we were all sad to see her go (especially Boris, who became very fond of her too).
Ah me, was there a point to this story? Well, maybe the point is that as I get older, I treasure the true friends in my life, the ones who accept me as I am, who make me laugh so hard I cry, who have the same take on the world that I do, and who can turn a couple of hours in the city into a fabulous memory. (Also if you get a chance to see the Barnes, you really should go–it’s amazing. But not as amazing as my friends.)