About six months ago, I had the opportunity to explore one of the finest, most unique art galleries in existence, The Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania. Established in 1922, and reflecting the quirky vision of its founder, Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951), the gallery houses one of the most extraordinary collections of Modern Art, including works by well-known masters Cezanne (69 works), Degas (11 works), Manet (4 works), Matisse (59 works), Modigliani (16 works), Monet (4 works), Picasso (46 works), Renoir (181 works, the most in any one collection), Seurat (6 works), and Van Gogh (7 works). Interspersed throughout the gallery are also fine examples of African, Asian, and Native American art. The collection and the experience of the gallery itself are unparalleled.
Most memorable and most striking, to me, were the works of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), especially as placed in the context of the masterpieces by the artists listed above. From what I could gather, the Foundation has about 20 Soutine works on display, but owns many more in total. I had heard of Soutine, but hadn’t recalled seeing any of his work firsthand. I was most impressed and intrigued by what I was now able to observe up close. I was fascinated by his use of thick, intense brush strokes, and the resulting contorted and distorted images he created. His landscapes and portraits certainly embody these characteristics (see, for example, The Pastry Chef, 1919), and they are often haunting, even disturbing; but his various carcass (beef, fowl, hare, fish) series are particularly savage and grotesque. The entire perspective and approach are captivating. Apparently Soutine regularly horrified his colleagues, friends, and neighbors by keeping a variety of animal carcasses strewn about his studio in order to paint them. He would even splash blood on them (the carcasses, that is…) to keep them fresh (or at least fresh looking). Nevertheless, Barnes himself, perhaps in part because he was the son of a butcher, was drawn to Soutine’s work. It is even fair to say that Barnes virtually single-handedly catapulted Soutine to prominence when, on a 1922-23 tour of Europe to collect art for his gallery, he visited Soutine’s studio and bought 50+ paintings. “The main reason I bought so many of the paintings,” I was told Barnes wrote, “was that they were a surprise, if not a shock, and I wanted to find out how he got that way.” I wonder if Barnes ever figured out how he got that way. I’m still working on it myself. Provocative work indeed, and a thrill to view. Go see it!
The Barnes Foundation will eventually move from its current location in Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. While no specific date (as of this writing) has been set for the Foundation’s move, try to see the gallery at its original location in Merion. Not only the art gallery, but the surrounding gardens and arboretum are truly exceptional and well worth a visit.
Click here for a brief video overview of The Barnes Foundation collection and mission.
To investigate Soutine’s technique, approach, and perspective more directly, check out some of the examples housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These images can be manipulated and enlarged for closer examination.
For additional examples of Soutine’s work, click here.