A lesser curator might have waffled and waxed diplomatic about how all 4,323 pieces at the Barnes are great and monumental. (It would be true.) But when we asked chief curator Judith Dolkart for a highlight reel—a Philadelphian’s primer to the pieces that matter most—she quickly, ruthlessly whittled out this tiny tour of the Barnes’s eight most important pieces. Here, your private viewing.
The artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir | Painted: 1916
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: Renoir is the most-represented artist in the Barnes collection, with 181 paintings—the largest single holding in the world. This lush, luminous painting full of voluptuous bathers is one of Barnes’s favorites; he called it “the summation of [Renoir’s] powers.” While other pieces in Barnes’s collection, like the massive and stunning The Artist’s Family, give a sense of Renoir’s style and success as a painter, Dolkart says Bathing Group is one of the “most representative of the Renoir holdings here.” quotable: “Perhaps the thing that most interests me in Renoir, that most strikes a personal response is, what seems to me, his joy in painting the real life of red-blooded people, and his skill in conveying his sensations to my consciousness.” —Letter, Dr. Barnes to Leo Stein, July 17, 1914.
The artists: Dogon peoples, from Mali | Created: Late 19th or early 20th century
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: When Barnes bought this piece in the 1920s, most collectors were acquiring African art for ethnographic purposes, rather than as art. But Barnes genuinely liked the formal artistic qualities here, the creative demonstration of the roles of men and women in Dogon culture. He paired this with the latest contemporary paintings, Dolkart explains, to show the “universal impulse of creativity.” in good company: Picasso and Modigliani both took inspiration from African art—something Barnes referenced by placing the African sculpture near those painters’ pieces.
The artist: Horace Pippin | Painted: 1940
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: Pippin, a self-taught African-American artist born in West Chester, had his own technique: drawing on wood panels with hot pokers and wire to create figures, then adding brightly colored paint to the carved panels. Barnes liked the technique and the art, and invited Pippin to come see his foundation. Pippin later enrolled as a student; just after his 1946 death, one critic called him “a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so uniquely as almost to defy classification.” by the numbers: There are only 140 known Pippin pieces; the Barnes Foundation has four of them.
The artist: Georges Seurat | Painted: 1886 to 1888
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: This painting was a sort of manifesto for the French Post-Impressionist at a time when people were questioning whether his pointillist technique was suitable for the noblest art form—the nude. Seurat responded by painting not just one but three beautiful nudes, from various points of view. “This painting,” Dolkart says, “isn’t just a statement of the validity of his technique, but also of his own mastery of it.” don’t miss: Seurat’s famous A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which he painted in the background here as his way of referencing the argument about his well-known technique.
Acrobat and Young Harlequin
The artist: Pablo Picasso | Painted: 1905
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: This painting marks the beginning of Picasso’s Rose Period, and also his fascination with street performers. He likely identified with these people, Dolkart says, because they struggled, as he did, and because they were unconventional—just as an artist choosing such unknowns for his subject was unconventional. The harlequin shows up later in many of Picasso’s pieces, a sort of alter ego for the artist. friends in high places: Barnes was proud of his foresight as an early Picasso collector, and may have met the artist at some point at the Stein salon in Paris.
The artist: Unknown | Created: 18th century
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: Barnes liked Pennsylvania Dutch artwork because, in his words, “my grandmother was one of them … when I got on Easy Street, I started to collect Pennsylvania Dutch articles”—like this chest from Berks County, with its unicorn motif. Scholars think the detailed decoration could be a mix of German and British cultures—the mishmash of the British coat of arms (with unicorn) and the emblem of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (with two horses). art
history: The Pennsylvania Germans, Dolkart says, gave these sorts of chests to young people for storage, to teach them the value of caring for one’s things. Barnes collected several.
The Large Bathers
The artist: Paul Cézanne | Painted: 1895 to 1906
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: Cézanne painted bathers throughout his life; this iteration is one of three monumental bathing-themed works from the last decade of his career. Barnes also collected some of Cézanne’s early bathers, so you can see the artist’s evolution. look familiar? You may have seen one of the other two Bathers down the street at the PMA. (The third is in London’s National Gallery.)
The Card Players
The artist: Paul Cézanne | Painted: 1890 to 1892
Why you should see it at the Barnes Museum: While most of Cézanne’s contemporaries were depicting card games as raucous affairs, to demonstrate the pitfalls of drinking and gambling, he broke the mold, skipping the moralizing to simply depict a quiet scene. Barnes, Dolkart says, liked “traditional subjects made unconventional by the painter.” finding balance: Barnes famously had a thing for symmetry, both in the way he hung paintings and in the paintings themselves—like the rhythmic symmetry of the figures in this piece.