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Art: Barnes' often-overlooked American art

A scholar catalogs the home-grown work hanging in the shadow of European masters.

William Glackens' "Race Track" (1909). Glackens was a high school friend who helped Albert Barnes begin collecting. The foundation owns 71 works by Glackens.
William Glackens' "Race Track" (1909). Glackens was a high school friend who helped Albert Barnes begin collecting. The foundation owns 71 works by Glackens.Read morePhotograph 2010 reproduced with permission of the Barnes Foundation

Visitors to the Barnes Foundation eventually discover that there's much more to its extraordinary display than its renowned groups of impressionist, postimpressionist, and early modern paintings.

There is, for instance, a sizable body of American art that accounts for about a quarter of the works installed in the Merion galleries. One room, Gallery 12, is devoted entirely to the American artists Albert C. Barnes knew and collected in depth.

Despite this, and the fact that at least two American works hang in each gallery, in the public's perception the American artists continue to be eclipsed by European stars such as Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse.

A new, lavishly illustrated catalog of the Barnes' two-dimensional American art - 343 paintings and works on paper (plus four sculptures) - elevates this aspect to richly deserved prominence. American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, (Yale University Press, 404 pp., $75) also helps clarify how Barnes thought about art and who helped him formulate his ideas.

It was written by Richard J. Wattenmaker, an independent scholar admirably suited to the task. An art-history graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, Wattenmaker both studied and taught at the Barnes.

He wrote his 1972 doctoral thesis on realist painter William Glackens, the high school chum who helped Barnes start collecting in 1912. It's not surprising that the foundation owns 71 oils, pastels, sketches, and illustrations by Glackens, one of nine artists whom Wattenmaker features in the book.

The others are brothers Charles and Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Jules Pascin, Alfred H. Maurer, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Horace Pippin. Their works account for about two-thirds of the American collection.

This is an eclectic bunch, to say the least. Lawson is usually classified as an impressionist and Maurice Prendergast as a postimpressionist. Maurer, though American, lived in Paris, where he helped Barnes contact dealers. Pascin, a native of Bulgaria, was a European modernist who came to the United States during World War I, became a citizen in 1920, and promptly moved back to Europe.

And then there's Pippin, the untutored African American from West Chester who became a celebrated naive painter, although the foundation owns only four of his works.

What they had in common, Wattenmaker explains, was friendship with Barnes and influence on his aesthetic thinking. The fact that he found common ground with all nine offers a key insight into the way he went about forming his collection.

"Barnes was not interested in putting together a collection of pictures that had already been done by other collectors," Wattenmaker said during a tour of the Merion galleries - even those he admired, such as Louisine and Henry O. Havemeyer. "He was not interested in American artists who were primarily academic," that is, wedded firmly to tradition.

Rather, the author continued, "Barnes was very much interested in artists who used tradition in a novel way, who created richness and variety. And he was interested in how artists used color, which was always an essential element in his thinking."

That template explains why Barnes didn't respond to denotative movements per se, as most collectors did, and why he was attracted to artists "who made something new from tradition."

The inclusion of Hartley and Demuth among the nine indicates that Barnes eventually did appreciate the innovations of cubism, which is scarce at Merion. Both artists were clearly influenced by it, and in 1922 Barnes commissioned cubist reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz for the foundation's gallery.

"It was the metaphysics of cubism that Barnes objected to," Wattenmaker observed.

Each of the nine artists is discussed in an essay, its length depending on the intensity and duration of the founder's involvement. Works are individually described and illustrated.

Barnes acquired most of his American works directly from the artists in the first decade of his collecting, the period when European modernism was beginning to influence American artists. Yet he didn't keep everything he bought during this period. Over the years, he sold, traded, or gave away some works. Consequently, the foundation's Lawsons shrank from about 15 to six, the Maurers from about 25 to 10, and the Demuths from 57 to 45.

Not all nine principals are extensively represented in the collection. Aside from Glackens with his 71 works, the apparent favorites are Pascin (57) and Demuth (45). By contrast, the foundation owns only three Hartleys.

Works by 52 other artists are in the American collection; they're listed, and illustrated, in more abbreviated form. Notable names include Milton Avery, Mary Cassatt, Arthur B. Davies, Guy Pène du Bois, John Kane, George Luks, and John Sloan.

Barnes also acquired works by a number of local artists, including Angelo, Biagio, and Salvatore Pinto; longtime Barnes instructors Barton Church (to whom the book is dedicated) and Harry Sefarbi; Francis McCarthy; Hugh Mesibov; and Luigi Settanni.

This partial roster bears out Wattenmaker's assertion that Barnes collected artists who were innovative, in most cases in a developing modernist idiom. Even though he ignored movements, he did acquire works by six members of The Eight (missing only Robert Henri, the leader, and Everett Shinn).

Generally, the pattern of Barnes' American choices mirrors his European ones. He bulked up on favorites such as Glackens, Pascin, and Demuth disproportionately (as he did Renoir, Cezanne, and Matisse) while satisfying himself with token examples by Hartley and Avery. The latter is curious, because Avery was a precocious colorist.

Deaccessions after an initial burst of enthusiasm (Maurer and Lawson in particular) suggest not only that Barnes' taste shifted over time but also that certain personal relationships weakened or withered.

Wattenmaker, who incidentally is an expert on ornamental ironwork of the kind that Barnes included in his gallery ensembles, worked intensively on the American catalog for six years. It's not exclusively descriptive, like a pure catalogue raisonné; he also included an expansive essay that's part biography of the founder and part history of the foundation.

This section not only provides valuable context for readers who might not be familiar with the foundation's evolution, it also helps explain why the collection developed in an unconventional way.

Barnes' agenda isn't obvious from visiting the foundation, so a knowledgeable insider such as Wattenmaker, through his book, can help one to recognize the principles that allowed Barnes to reconcile such disparate talents as Picasso and Pippin.

American Paintings and Works on Paper is the first new publication from the foundation since the 1993 catalog that accompanied an exhibition of French paintings from the Barnes that traveled around the world.

Two more catalogs are in the works, one on the Barnes' 181 Renoirs and another on its 59 paintings by Matisse.

Art: Barnes Book Talk

Richard J. Wattenmaker will participate in a panel discussion on American modernism Nov. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at WHYY, 150 N. Sixth St. Moderator: Sylvia Yount of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Panelists: curators Mark Mitchell of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Robert Cozzolino of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Tickets are $20; $15 for members of WHYY and the Barnes Foundation. Register at (click Hamilton Public Media Commons) or by calling 215-351-0511.EndText