Since 2012, Dr Albert C Barnes' eye-popping collection of artworks – predominantly focused on French masterpieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – has taken pride of place at the end of Benjamin Franklin Pkwy in the Logan Square & Fairmount district in Philadelphia. Set inside a stylish, contemporary shell is a faithful reproduction of the galleries that once filled Barnes' original mansion (which still stands in the Philadelphia suburbs). It's a great spot for families, with a regular program of kid-friendly activities.
Visiting the Barnes Foundation
Dr Albert C Barnes wasn't the only Philadelphia philanthropist to bring fine art to the masses, but he was a pioneer in placing African folk art and native art from the Americas at the same level as masterpieces from Europe – so, as works of art, rather than ethnographic curios. The collection displayed in the modernist gallery on Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a walking tour through the history of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modernist art, and also a journey through the artistic traditions of Africa and the Americas, a gripping combination.
The scale of Barnes' collection has to be seen to be believed. The museum has more than 180 paintings by Renoir, more than 50 paintings by Matisse, more than 40 paintings by Picasso, and 7 works by Van Gogh, plus priceless paintings by Rousseau, Monet, Gauguin, Goya, Cézanne, Rubens, Titian and more. Standout works include Renoir's Jeune garçon sur la plage d'Yport, Van Gogh's Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin and Courbet's risque Les Bas Blancs.
While the main galleries remain faithful to the collection's original home in Lower Merion, the beautiful contemporary building offers extra space for special exhibitions, gallery resources and a restaurant that's popular with Philly's cultured set.
History of the Barnes Foundation
In the first half of the 20th century, Philadelphia native Dr Albert C Barnes amassed a remarkable treasure trove of artwork by Cézanne, Degas, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh and other European stars, but he wasn't born into art circles. Barnes trained as a medical doctor, worked as a chemist, and built his fortune on an antiseptic treatment for eye infections.
Barnes' first foray into the world of art buying came in 1912, when he dispatched an old school classmate to Paris to buy $20,000 worth of paintings. The trip was so successful that Barnes made two trips to Paris himself the same year, returning with two works by Matisse, alongside other treasures. The collection continued to grow throughout Barnes' lifetime. Although his passion was European art, Barnes displayed these works alongside beautiful pieces of folk art from Africa and the Americas – an artistic desegregation that was shocking at the time.
When the Barnes Foundation collection moved to its stylish modern home in 2012, it caused considerable controversy as the new museum didn't stick strictly to the stipulations in Barnes' will about opening times, public access and days devoted to educational programs. The new gallery did however make great efforts to display artworks as Barnes intended, recreating the interiors from the collector's Lower Merion home at the time of his death.
While her husband was tending to his art collection, Laura Leggett Barnes concentrated on the garden of their home at Lower Merion, founding a horticultural school in 1940. Today, the garden is open to the public as a 12-acre arboretum, with more than 2500 varieties of plants and more than 10,000 herb specimens.
Tickets & Practicalities
Tickets for the museum are best bought online in advance to avoid queues on the day. Entry is free on the first Sunday or each month, a great addition to the list of free things to do in Philadelphia; tickets are only handed out on the day and families take priority so arrive before 10am to maximize your chances. On site parking is available but limited. It's easier to come on foot or by bus; numerous SEPTA bus lines stop nearby and the museum is also a stop for the Philly Phlash, a tourist bus that loops around Center City.
Where to eat near the Barnes Foundation
Aside from the Barnes Foundation's popular Garden Restaurant, consider the following conveniently located cafes, food courts and pubs with food menus.