What can you say about a place that has 181 (!) Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos among its holdings, all of them unlabeled (!) and hung in an idiosyncratic manner reflecting a personal and unique philosophy about art? Volumes! And art critics have.
The relocation of the collection of the Barnes Foundation from his original home in Merion, Pa. to a millimeter-accurate reconstruction of its interior within a larger, $100 MM modern structure on Philadelphia’s “museum quarter-mile” was controversial in the extreme. Like every other Philadelphian, I have an opinion, but that’s not the the subject of this post.
I am one of those who has benefited from the move: I became a member at a level that allows entrance without prior appointment. Given that visitors over the past decades had tight capacity-controls and required reservations far in advance, this is a profound change in accessibility. It’s the only way to be able – finally! – to get to know the collection even a little bit. (There are over 4,000 items, but that’s including every hinge, key, lock and miscellaneous artifact that caught Dr. Barnes’ fancy.)
My most memorable visit was in the month of my 40th birthday, almost a quarter-century ago, when a woman (an artist herself) with whom I fell in love deeply and madly made me look at Bonnards differently… but that’s another story for (and of) another time and life. My most recent visit – yesterday – also served as the beginning of a personal project: to “capture” my personal favorites.
Woman Seated on a Red Sofa – William Glackens (Never confused with his “Nude on a Red Sofa“, for obvious reasons.)
My knowledge of Glackens is limited and mostly gleaned from reading about his relationship with Dr. Barnes. (They were friends and he was one of Barnes’ advisors/agents about what artists to collect.) Knowing little about him allows the work to speak for itself without the baggage of the maker’s reputation. (It’s the same reason I like movies starring little-known actors.)
It’s the body language and expression on the woman’s face that distinguishes it for me. She’s absorbed by something yet self-contained and at ease. She doesn’t appear to be waiting for someone, yet has ceded most of the couch, placing herself at one end. And in that positioning and in that empty space beside her is her story. And that makes it a painting I can look at again and again.
Moorish Woman (The Raised Knee) – Henri Matisse, 1922-1923
Of Matisse’s many paintings of odalisques, this one is absolutely my favorite because the subject, a subjugated woman stares at the artist with a pose and look that is the opposite of her state. Her expression is a cypher, her body’s nakedness and brazen angles a study in secure acceptance of the self: she owns herself regardless of her legal status. She hides nothing, is ashamed of nothing: her dignity is intact. And Matisse captures that.
Two Figures On a Path – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1906
Aside from the relative size of the figures and their gender, we know nothing else about them: their ages, their conversation, their lives. And so, this mother and daughter – my conjecture (and probably the most universal one) – stand-in for all the mothers and daughters who have taken a woodsy walk together on a fine Spring or Summer day and bonded over everything from a shared silence to spoken secrets. And that warms my heart.
Luncheon (Le Dejeneur) – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875
How charming his expression, how swaddled she is in heavy linen, how delicious the bouillabaisse in the tureen must have been, how proper the whole scene….
This is the lunch at the beginning – the rosy, innocent beginning – that bookends with Degas’ Le Interieur at the other, unpredictable end. The link will take you to the Degas and its story… or one version of it. Once you’ve read that, you’ll understand.