The art collection assembled by Albert C. Barnes is a many-splendored thing, but also one shaped by paradox.

It's internationally famous for its exceptional group of impressionist, postimpressionist, and early modern paintings, but they're only part of what makes a visit to the foundation a memorable adventure.

As a collector, Barnes was something of an omnivore. Besides indulging in his favorite artists, Pierre-August Renoir, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse, whose pictures constitute the core of his European holdings, he assembled an extensive body of pictures by American artists, including some Philadelphians.

Justifiably, these receive far less attention than the Big Three, which are augmented by such European masters as van Gogh, Seurat, Picasso, and Rousseau. The American reputations are smaller, the works themselves less prepossessing.

Like most collectors then and now, Barnes began before World War I with paintings, but after the war he branched out into other media. In 1923, he bought a select group of African sculptures, apparently because he recognized the influence of what was then called tribal art on European modernists.

Perhaps a connection to Pennsylvania German culture through his mother's family inspired an interest in its furniture and pottery, much of which he installed at his Chester County farm, Ker-Feal.

The foundation's collections of Southwestern Pueblo pottery and of Navajo silver and turquoise jewelry, which Barnes acquired in the 1930s, both include masterpieces of their kind. One consultant has called the jewelry collection world-class.

Finally, there's the celebrated ironwork - decorative hinges, door-pulls, and such. You can't miss them, because to illustrate his aesthetic philosophy Barnes distributed the hardware on the gallery walls among the paintings.

So the "collection" isn't unitary and focused but more like an amalgam of constituent parts, which Barnes related to one another.

The installation of the 23 galleries, which are today as Barnes left them at his death in 1951 (though in a different zip code), reflects this. European and American paintings are mixed together, accented by Pennsylvania German decorated chests and the aforementioned iron hardware. The African art is kept together, not distributed among the ensembles.

Likewise, the Pueblo pottery and some jewelry are separate, but a related group of small devotional paintings called retablos by Hispanic folk artists are integrated.

These attributes make the collection challenging to engage and absorb, because - as visitors realize the moment they enter - it's radically different from others that cover the same period. It isn't organized by historical movements, nor is it presented chronologically, or by national "schools."

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This is because Barnes was primarily interested in identifying universal aesthetic values in the art of different periods and cultures.

For instance, though he collected some prime examples of impressionism, he wasn't interested in this manner of painting per se, or in what it expressed about the cultural values of its time and place. His approach, in collecting and in education, was eclectic and pan-cultural.

He did consider Renoir, Cezanne, and Matisse to be exemplary in achieving an admirable balance of tradition and innovation.

He wrote that he couldn't decide whether Renoir or Cezanne was the more successful in extending tradition in modern terms, but the fact that he bought three times as many of the former as the latter must settle the question. He adored Renoir, and no doubt was pleased that his friend and mentor William J. Glackens painted in a similar style.

Based on the collection as presented, one can't conclude that Barnes was as committed to modernism as some of his more prominent contemporaries, particularly New York lawyer John Quinn, an instigator of the famous 1913 Armory Show, or Katherine S. Dreier, or even sisters Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore, like Barnes major patrons of Matisse.

Barnes needed to relate the art of his time to the art of the distant and immediate past, which is why his collection is full of figuration, landscape, and still life.

He did not favor pure abstraction, and explained that he was cool to the philosophies of cubism and futurism, two movements much talked about during the height of his collecting. Nor do we find much, if any, surrealism on the foundation walls, and certainly not abstract expressionism.

One of the paradoxes, then, is that the Barnes collection is both modern up to a point and firmly anchored in the past.

Another is the fact that the artists he favors don't stand out as much as they might but are subsumed in a larger whole. If you go to the Barnes to study Cezannes, for instance, you have to pick them out of a crowd. Similarly, neither impressionists nor postimpressionists are prominent as a movement, though the foundation owns splendid examples of each.

Yet it also houses a lot of average art. Barnes was not a particularly refined connoisseur. He bought from artists who were friends and from former students at his foundations. He bought far more Soutines than a discriminating eye would tolerate, for instance.

To experience a carefully selected connoisseurial collection, visit the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, or the Frick Collection in New York, or Boston's Gardiner Museum. Barnes' collection is, more rarely, a Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art in itself that encapsulates the doctor's personality, educational ambitions, and aesthetic beliefs.

This, I believe, is the most useful way to approach it. One must circumscribe the complete package before directing attention to the component parts, or to individual artists.

That is to say, one should approach the Barnes collection in a frame of mind similar to that of Albert Barnes when he was making his choices. The whole here is more than the sum of the parts - even if some of the parts, like Matisse's Dance and The Joy of Life, are memorably glorious.