A quiet suburb is home to stunning Barnes Collection

Priceless impressionist art is near Philadelphia

Trips: Road Trips, Regional Events

August 12, 2004|By Vera Eidelman | Vera Eidelman,SUN STAFF

Walking along tree-lined North Latch's Lane in Merion, Pa., you wouldn't expect to find much. Sure, the houses are pretty and the grass is lush, but there's nowhere to eat nearby, except the occasional Wendy's and definitely nowhere to shop, unless you're in the mood for 7-Eleven. It's minutes, and worlds, away from Philadelphia.

If you walk far enough, though, you'll find the Barnes Foundation, home to more than 3,800 displayed works of art (another 5,000-6,000 are in storage) and an arboretum.

The art collection is displayed on the top two floors of a three-story house (the bottom floor is used as a coat room and gallery shop) and "is best known for French impressionist paintings," says Henry Butler, director of marketing and communications at the foundation. The foundation owns more than 180 works by Renoir, as well as 60 or 70 each by Cezanne and Matisse.

"But I've never heard of anyone saying, `I came here just to see Cezanne," adds Butler. "Barnes also championed Soutine and Demuth. ... And there's a large collection of American painters."

Impressionists hang side by side with cubists, and 12th-century Asian art is sprinkled among European religious work and paintings by old masters. Modigliani's long, pale faces stare across galleries at Renoir's round, peach ones. Each room is a mixture of time periods and schools of thought, meticulously, but not traditionally, planned out.

Sculptures, hand-wrought iron, antique furniture, ceramics and jewelry are also on display. They surround the paintings in some rooms, and in others they stand alone. The third-floor hallway is lined solely with such works.

The foundation's primary mission is not to be a museum, but to provide education in art and horticulture. So, the rooms are "all designed for teaching purposes. The salon-style wall ensembles are like blackboards," says Butler.

"Barnes believed you should see the art, not read about it," Butler explains. Staying true to his philosophy, the foundation does not put up signs with the names of paintings and other traditional art museum information. Instead, the artist's name is all that appears on the frame of each painting. More information can be found on laminated sheets throughout the rooms.

Dr. Albert Barnes began the foundation in 1922, hoping to "promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts," according to a news release. He aimed to make access to both nondiscriminatory. Classes are conducted at the foundation, in art and horticulture, based on a progressive philosophy that relies on the interaction of students with the environment.

Barnes was born in 1872, into a working-class Philadelphia family. In 1902, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, he co-founded the firm of Barnes and Hille, which developed and produced the antiseptic product Argyrol. Barnes made millions and, by 1908, he had taken over the firm and established facilities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Even before the foundation, Barnes had been working toward combining his love for the working man with his love for art and his belief in progressive education. He began hanging recently bought paintings in his factory, hoping to spark discussion and interest and even started discussion groups for his employees.

He created the Barnes Foundation in 1922. It was the manifestation of many of his ideals.

Barnes bought the 13-acre arboretum that would become the home of his foundation and hired Paul Cret to design it. By 1925, the gallery was built. The collection itself was chosen by Barnes, as was the setup of each room. He hoped to show that all art forms share certain elements and traditions.

In 1940, his wife, Laura Barnes, began the Arboretum School. The Barneses believed it was important to combine art and nature. Although small, the arboretum is relatively diverse, with many species of trees, a rose garden, pond, stream and more than 200 types of lilacs.

Peaceful and wonderfully green, it complements the gallery. There are benches in the shade, and a walk outside after a gallery tour is a welcome change. "We encourage visitors to visit both," says Bryant. The foundation also has a greenhouse, but it is not open to visitors. The same is true of Barnes' former residence.

Recently, there has been an effort to move the collection to Philadelphia in the interest of attracting more revenue and in spite of Barnes' instructions in his will that the collection never be moved. The next hearing is Sept. 21.

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