Rethinking Titles and Loving Van Gogh at the Barnes Museum, Philadelphia

Me: It was so good getting lunch with you!
Cousin: I loved catching up! I’d better make the blog!

True praise, indeed! Whenever I’m in Philadelphia, I try to see several friends even if I’m there only a short time, and one of the great benefits of taking the train is that I can always fit in an early lunch at 30th Street Station before the westbound Pennsylvanian pulls out. So even though I spent most of my weekend with Til, an old friend from college, I was able to wrap up the trip sharing a lunch and conversation with my cousin*, who’s a big fan of my blog. (Girl, why didn’t we get a picture of us together before you went back to work??) May this be just the first of many meet-ups with faithful readers on my travels.

Whenever I visit Til, our weekends tend to include some combination of old movies, needlework, and nachos. This weekend was no exception, but before succumbing to our sophomore-year habits, we had a yard sale at her new house and visited the Barnes Collection downtown.

Know how you always whisper for some reason in an art gallery? This weekend we knew the reason: Til had lost her voice. Ten years ago, I lost my voice when she visited me in Germany, so now we’re even. Well, not quite. I wasn’t relying on her as interpreter in this case, even if Philadelphians do say “water” differently than the rest of the world.

Dr. Barnes was a scientific, methodical man who devoted his mind and self-made fortune to acquiring and understanding art. The cashier at the gift shop pointed out the symmetry in the galleries: he’d arranged his art like the periodic table. Top to bottom, side to side. The result is a wall of art, all feeding off of and informing one another, quite unlike a typical gallery that leaves each piece on its own.

Additionally, he didn’t want to label the art with little plaques all over the place, so instead, there’s a booklet in each gallery that tells you the name, artist, and year for each piece. Let me tell you why I love this idea. In Gallery 1, a painting captured me and stirred my emotions. A very ill person lay, apparently dying, on a sickbed, while someone (their child? a doctor?) leaned over them holding their hand. How poignant, I thought. How moving.

Curious, I opened the booklet to see who painted it and learned that it’s called The Hypochondriac, by Honoré Daumier. What a turn! I had to look at it with all new eyes and a greater appreciation for the power of titles in visual art as much as written. I never would have had that experience if a plaque had left out all the mystery.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum, so I’ve found my favorites on their website to share here. (All images are theirs and theirs alone. Please visit their collection website to learn more about each one and see the rest!) By the end of the museum, I had developed an eye for Renoir and noticed I’m drawn to images of Montmarte. I want to be as good at titles as Glackens, and I want to pet Van Gogh’s canvasses with their distinct brushstrokes. I walked away from the gift shop with a birthday gift for my nephew and a postcard of a Toulouse-Lautrec for myself. I hope you enjoy the collection.


Honoré Daumier, The Painter in Front of His Painting (Le Peintre devant son tableau)
This painting is about 5 inches tall and easy to miss, tiny, undetailed, and dark, almost as though he didn’t want to make himself too prominent. Notice it looks like the light is emanating from his canvas.


Pierre-August Renoir, La Famille Henriot
I love the girl’s face, like it’s before she’s learned to pose the way her father and mother do. She seems to be saying, “I’m outside with my puppies and having a blast!”


Pierre-August Renoir, Reading (La Lecture)
Maybe I just read a lot, but this felt like one of the more natural poses in that gallery. Two girls, bent over a book, oblivious to anything outside the pages.


Pierre-August Renoir, Leaving the Conservatory (La Sortie du conservatoire)
I’ve seen this one before in prints, but not till I sat looking at the original did I realize there was a story going on. You see, the posture of the young lady in the foreground tells me she just told off the young man in front of her. He’s stepped back, surprised, while his friend holds him back from doing something truly ungentlemanly. The girl’s friend, meanwhile, is utterly impressed, probably saying something like, “Wow, Margaux, you’re so clever and brave.”


Paul Cézanne, Peasant Standing with Arms Crossed (Paysan debout, les bras croisés)
I’m clearly not an aristo if this painting caught my eye as someone I’d rather hang out with than the suited toffs in the rest of the gallery. Or maybe I just like hats. (I do.)


William James Glackens, Then We All Went Home
It tells a story. The three friends are relaxed, happy, that joy you feel wrapping up a great time with good friends. Kind of like how I felt boarding my train yesterday. Only these fellows seem a little less sure on their feet…


William James Glackens, Never Again, He Remarked Gloomily


William James Glackens, There Was Edward Bickford’s Racing Cup
The figures are so alive and I’m in love with his titles! They make me wonder if these were for illustrating a book or something. They seem almost like captions to a story I’m not privy to. In this one, particularly, isn’t it cool that he used a white crayon to really brighten the area around the candle, rather than leaving it to the color of the paper the way he did the rest of the illustration?


Jean-Siméon Chardin (att’d), Woman Drawing Water From an Urn
The work attributed to Chardin was very dark. It made me think about women’s work in earlier eras. Were they always working in the dark? Was it really so poorly lit? How did they not lose their eyesight by the age of 40? Well, maybe they did.


Jean-Siméon Chardin (att’d), Woman Doing Wash
Kids everywhere and everywhen are gonna make bubbles when Mom’s doing her laundry.


Claude Monet, The Studio Boat (Le Bateau-atelier)
I’m not surprised this is one of the flagship pieces of the whole collection. In the photo, it appears sort of duochromatic, but in person, the lighting is phenomenal. I moved all over the room to see this piece from every angle and distance. How did the impressionists, working an arm’s length from the canvas, see that the leaves and reflections would look right from a distance? I love it.


Vincent van Gogh, Still Life (Nature morte)
Please find the closest gallery to you that has an original Van Gogh, and then hurry on over to see it in real life. The texture of the paints, the ridges and brush strokes, the whorls and swirls … a photograph can’t capture it. It’s almost as much sculpture as painting. Simply magnificent.


Roger de La Fresnaye, Married Life (La Vie conjugale)
I’m not married, but I’m unconvinced this is a true representation of married life. Fully-suited man and naked woman? That, to me, says inequality. Not the married life I’m looking for, anyway (although I am liking all the books everywhere).


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “A Montrouge”–Rosa La Rouge
Hanging right beside La Vie conjugale, this painting seemed far more true. Look at the set of her jaw, the tension in her shoulders. This woman is real, stubborn. I think we’d be friends. He captured the shade of her hair so well, it’s almost okay that you can’t even see her eyes.


If You Go
  • Admissions fee is $22–25, depending on when you go. It’s more for a guided tour, less for members.
  • Parking is available, I think, but we took Septa in and out of the city and got to see some nice parks and enjoy the weather!

* Cousin. We’re not really related, but our dads were best friends, and the same way my BFF’s kiddos call me Aunt Becca, I call Uncle Rich’s kids my cousins.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking Titles and Loving Van Gogh at the Barnes Museum, Philadelphia

  1. Pingback: And Then a Cop Took Me to Prison | Becca In Transit

  2. Pingback: Word(s) Count: Revolutionary-Style | Becca In Transit

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