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When Salvaged Materials and French Impressionists Share the Same Wall

Posted by Christina B. Farnsworth

Nov 12, 2014 2:53:00 PM

The value and beauty of everyday things.

Doctor Albert Coombs Barnes was an avid collector of Impressionist art and antique hardware that he displayed cheek by jowl with equal affection in graceful ensembles on the walls of his 1922-home in Lower Marion, Pa. In 2012, the Barnes Foundation opened in Philadelphia. The museum’s exterior is modern, but the interior replicates Barnes’ careful placement of his million-dollar Impressionist artworks and antique hardware just as it was in his original home.

There are at least two lessons to take away from the Barnes Collection:

  1. It is better to have just a few beautiful, useful everyday objects such as a wonderful spatula rather than a drawer full of ordinary ones.
  2. If you have a collection of old knobs and hardware that have languished hidden away in drawers, bring them out to be displayed as art on the wall, perhaps in shadow boxes.

I have long thought that Chicagoan Bertha Palmer (or Mrs. Potter Palmer, as a she was referred to during her era) and Barnes may have made Renoir the famed painter we know today. But Barnes focused on more than his extensive art collection. He literally paid the same homage to hand-crafted everyday objects, often centuries old, as he did to his art.

Doctor Barnes made his fortune through a confluence of innovation and timing. He co-developed Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used to prevent infant blindness.

Barnes’ collection Wikipedia says, includes “more than 2,500 objects, including 800 paintings, estimated to be worth about $25 billion.”

Controversy and court challenges surrounded the building of the foundation in Philadelphia and the moving of the works from Barnes 1922 home to the new 2012 museum designed by the New York architectural firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien. 

The Barnes Foundation achieved LEED Platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).  Williams and Tsien used:  low- or no-VOC paints and building materials, FSC-certified woods, recycled and reclaimed materials, insulationa and other construction standards that resulted in a 40% reduction in energy use compared to a commercial building built to regular codes and standard and landscape irrigation provided by from a 40,000-gallon cistern that holds rainwater collected on site.

The story of Barnes and his collection has been the subject of several documentaries, including one by PBS called The Barnes Collection.

Palmer’s art collection became the backbone of The Art Institute of Chicago. Legend has it that Palmer kept some of her now-famous Renoirs under her bed at the Palmer House hotel, where she lived in later life. Palmer also hired Mary Cassatt to paint the huge murals (now lost) for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.


Palmer had a serious fondness for Monet’s works. It was Palmer’s collection that introduced me to the French Impressionists at Chicago’s Art Institute.

Barnes seems to have cornered the Renoir market -- and maybe Cezanne, but he also collected Renoir's son's ceramics. The son became well-known film director Jean Renoir.

One can make online reservations and book times to enter the foundation, which is far easier than it used to be to see Barnes’ personal, private collection in its original residential location.

To add to the appreciation of Barnes and his collection, it is best to get the book, The Barnes Foundation, and watch the films, which add to but in no way replace the experience of being at the Barnes Foundation. There is so much to see on each wall that even with the audio headset, it is hard to take in the entire collection, even if you have studied art history and seen other collections.

One might also want to visit the blog Philadephia Reflections, which has published about Barnes and his collection.

What is as marvelous as the art are the objects, a virtual hardware store of hand-made hinges and escutcheon plates, roasting forks and sieves. Truly beautiful every day objects made for the time someone wanted something wonderful to use every day and last forever. And it was environments outfitted with these objects in which the art (that we value in a way that we do not value the daily-life objects that created the artists' living environments) was created.

I totally get the irascible Barnes. Wish someone had asked him what attracted him to artists? What first work had garnered his interest? Did he prefer earlier works by an artist to later works? He did write a book, The Art in Painting published originally in 1925; a 522-page 1937 edition is available on Amazon.com.

Barnes had many Renoirs and Cezannes, but he had some Picassos, too, a few Blue period pieces, a few early works when Picasso was still working with some sense of realism and some small works I had not seen the likes of before --small, largely cubist geometric Picassos in a sharp brown black palette.

Except for Renoir and Cezanne for which there were numerous works in the same room, the Picassos were in different rooms, scattered like parsley to garnish a plate.

I hardly got to the Navajo and other collected works on my visit -- rugs, ceramics, jewelry. Just have to go back and spend some serious time there after I frame and hang some of my own antique hinges as art.

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