"Models" by Georges Seurat in the Barnes Museum
I just had one of the best days ever, on a field trip with three friends to the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia. It did not begin auspiciously, Mercury being in retrograde as it so often is when one wants the day to go right. First, we boarded the wrong train from Manhattan’s Penn Station–almost an impossibility, you would think, for four grown and presumably intelligent adults. But there we were, comfortably ensconced in seats to Newark, N.J., when, fortunately, a man across the aisle leaped up with the realization that this was the wrong track.
The ride to Philadelphia was smooth until that glorious train station’s women’s room, where I found myself closely attended by a woman infected with the spirit of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. As I washed my hands, she pointed to her face, indicating her cheekbones and explaining, “This is where He lives. Whenever you see cheeks like this, you will know He is there.” It was a good tip, and I promised her that I would be on the lookout.
In short order, we had boarded a second, commuter train to the Barnes Museum, which I had frankly never heard of before this invitation. (I’m easy–ask me to the opening of a new McDonald’s, or the closing of Filene’s, I’m there.) It was a perfect spring day as we ambled through a Main Line park toward the museum that had for years so offended the community, they had lobbied for its ouster. Well, they got their way–the Barnes will soon close, and be incorporated into the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But now they want it back–all along our walking route there were tasteful, community-approved signs begging not to move the Barnes.
A short history: The Barnes Museum–actually, it’s called The Barnes Foundation–houses the collection of Albert C. Barnes, M.D., who made his fortune developing a silver compound underlying an antiseptic product, Argyrol. Somehow, this son of a Philadelphia butcher developed one of the most amazing eyes for discovering new art. If you visit–and frankly, he was kind of a nut who didn’t encourage visitors– you will be privileged to view an unparalleled collection of French post-impressionist art: Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Seurat, Rousseau, Modigliani, maybe 200 Renoirs–including a bunch you’ll recognize from textbooks, but have never seen in life.
“I think Dr. Barnes was a bit mad,” said a German tourist, clearly needing to confide in someone, and yes, we immediately agreed. Barnes arranged this collection according to his whim, but it was a dictatorial whim, emphasizing his own artistic hobbyhorses. So he stacked paintings that include streaks of yellow on top of one another, and set up bizarre iron work to mimic their shapes. The lighting is dreadful, the experience overwhelming, almost claustrophobic.
Separated by our wanderings, my friends and I met at a Matisse. “Did you see that godawful Van Gogh?” I asked.
Indeed they had. Because tossed into this marvelous mix is the ugliest nude ever painted. Apparently, Van Gogh had paid a visit to Seurat, viewed his models, and decided he would give them a go. The result: A foreshortened figure with the face of a grotesque.
“I don’t think Van Gogh liked women,” I told David.
“That’s what Martha said,” he replied.
But there are so many surprises here–turn a corner, and there’s a Toulouse-Lautrec that looks just like an Andrew Wyeth. And the most beautiful, flower-strewn Picasso you can imagine. As for Renoir–Barnes may have done him a huge disservice by keeping so many wonderful paintings here. I always dismissed Renoir as boring, maudlin–but the paintings in this collection show an intimacy that breaks your heart, and a mastery of color you never suspected.
Upstairs, we stood in awe before Matisse’s “Joy of Life”–though we had to stand somewhat precariously, leaning over a banister, since Barnes had chosen to place it at the top of the stairs. A few steps away stood a breathtaking Ivory Coast door. (Barnes was also big on African art.) But then a de la Fresnaye painting triggered a memory for our friend Martha Babcock, who somehow is always in the right place at the right time. She had seen the Barnes collection (which, incidentally, isn’t supposed to travel) in Washington, D.C., shortly after Clinton was elected President.
“All of a sudden, all these guys, the Secret Service, came in,” she recalled. “They said, ‘The President and Mrs. Clinton are going to be coming into this room, in case you want to leave.’”
Well, like, who would leave? “Surprisingly, some people did,” said Martha.
But of course she stayed. “I went over to Hillary and said something to her and she said, ‘Well, it’s Mother’s Day, and after church, they asked what I wanted to do, and I wanted to come here.’
“Bill looked incredibly bored,” Martha continued. “His eyes were just glazed. They had Chelsea in tow, and you could tell she was a smart kid, she was really absorbing it. But the museum director was explaining, here is a Matisse, painted from inside the room looking out, because, ‘you see, Matisse hated the beach.’
“Bill’s eyes are rolling back. But then all of a sudden there is this picture, the director called it ‘Portrait of a Marriage’ [the Barnes title is "Conjugal Life"], where the guy is in a suit and the blond woman is nude, trying to get his attention, and there are snickers all around.”
For the President, Mother’s Day just kept getting better. “We go on,” Martha related, “and then there’s this Modigliani, and Bill is really alert now.”
We four stood in front of Modigliani’s “Nude–Mahogany Red,” and thought: Who does this resemble?
“Too thin for Monica,” said David.
“Maybe Paula?” I suggested.
Well, there are nudes, and there is fried chicken. An hour later, we were back at the Philadelphia train station, salivating at the prospect of Delilah’s Southern Cuisine. I picked up the health food combo of fried chicken, candied yams and macaroni and cheese for the bus ride back.
This ride, incidentally, cost us $8.50 each…and provided the perfect end to a perfect day. (Take that, Mercury!)