What to see while the Barnes Foundation goes on hiatus

Unfortunately, there's no substitute in our area for the Monkey Puzzle tree.
Unfortunately, there's no substitute in our area for the Monkey Puzzle tree. (Photograph © reproduced with the Permissionof The Barnes Foundation)
Posted: July 08, 2011

ON SUNDAY, the amazing, frustrating Barnes Foundation went on hiatus for 10 months as it moves its world-renowned art collection from Merion to the Parkway.

Its mind-blowing stash of important Impressionist paintings won't be on view again until May, after the artwork has settled into its new Center City digs, with newfangled amenities like a café and same-day admissions, if you can imagine that.

The eccentric old Barnes place on Latch's Lane in Merion and its faithful sidekick of an arboretum won't reopen to visitors until several months later, minus the familiar artwork.

In the meantime, what's a Barnes fan to do?

Here, some alternatives to tide you over, whether you loved the Barnes for its 69 Cezannes, 181 Renoirs, 46 Picassos, seven Van Goghs and leafy hideaway location - or loved to loathe its quirky restrictions and cranky neighbors.

TO GET YOUR CEZANNE FIX. The obvious substitute is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its massive "Large Bathers," the smaller "Group of Bathers" and 13 other Cezanne paintings on display, including landscapes, still lifes and three portraits of his wife, Madame Cezanne.

Subjectwise, that covers most of what you'd get at the Barnes. Alas, there's nothing comparable here in Philly to Cezanne's monumental painting "The Card Players," although there's a smaller one (not even half as big) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Closer to home, we suppose you could drive to Bensalem to see the life-size players in the poker room at Parx.

IF YOU'RE JONESING FOR RENOIR. Again, the art museum comes to your Impressionist rescue with Renoir's "The Large Bathers" (hanging within view of Cezanne's big gals so visitors can compare and contrast) plus 14 other Renoir paintings on display.

Jennifer Thompson, a curator of European painting for the art museum, noted that the girl in the museum's "Girl Tatting" painting is even wearing the same shirt as a model in one of the Barnes Renoirs. "It's this shimmering silk blouse with wheel-like patterns."

In the same vein, if you're pining for Van Gogh's famous portrait "The Postman" while the Barnes is closed, the art museum has a neat consolation prize: two portraits of postman Joseph Roulin's family. "You can go see his wife and the two children," Thompson noted.

The Barnes "Postman" is on virtual display in the foundation's online e-Museum (emuseum. barnesfoundation.org), which is undergoing an upgrade and expansion to help bridge patrons over the 10-month gap.

MAYBE YOU MISS THE PUNISHING ADMISSIONS GAUNTLET. Outside of the L&I zoning process and the waiting list for a seat at Talula's Table, it's hard to find a parallel for the endurance-testing ticketing scheme at the old Barnes. Patrons were advised to reserve at least 30 to 45 days in advance, and checks were quaintly accepted by snail mail.

Then came the bizarre rituals of a visit. Ladies were forewarned that "heels smaller than 2 inches in diameter may not be worn in the Gallery." Patrons who placed a toe over the 18-inch boundary line between themselves and a painting, or leaned a nose too far forward, earned a scolding. Grouchy neighbors were known to chew out visitors who pulled over to get their bearings on ritzy Latch's Lane.

Only a true Philadelphian could feel nostalgic for what one out-of-towner on Trip Advisor called the Barnes' "anal rules and restrictions." And yet we do. Sigh. Going forward, the security drill at the airport may have to suffice.

HOMES OF OTHER RICH, ECCENTRIC COLLECTORS, TO FILL THAT PARTICULAR VOID. Although Albert C. Barnes certainly had the most discerning eye for art, he's not the only local eccentric who invited people into his mansion to see what he'd collected. Philadelphia's Ryerss family bequeathed to the city its summer estate, Burholme (the neighborhood is named after the place), and Burholme's varied contents. The house, now known as the Ryerss Museum & Library and situated next to Fox Chase Cancer Center, is open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (7370 Central Ave., 215-685- 0544).

Admission is free, and the cornucopia of oddities includes English armor, a 12th-century Buddha statue, oil portraits of family pets, lots of porcelain, boomerangs, a model ship made of cloves, a fabulous shell collection and a taxidermied baby alligator named Snapper - who stands upright and holds a tray designed to receive visitors' calling cards. Outdoors, there's a pet cemetery.

More eccentric still are Henry Mercer's castles in Doylestown - one where he used to live (Fonthill Castle, at East Court Street and Route 313) and another nearby (the Mercer Museum, at 84 S. Pine St.) where he crammed all his stuff.

A gorgeous new wing at the Mercer Museum brings some order to Mercer's jumble of preindustrial tools and other early-American "stuff." (That's the actual term that Cory Amsler, the museum's curator, uses to describe the collection.) But the two early-20th-century castles and their contents - including a covered wagon and a hangman's gallows at the museum - are the real draw.

If you thought Barnes was a little out there with the burlap wall coverings and decorative metal hinges, wait till you see what old Mercer got up to with his favorite design element: concrete. Hours and admissions prices for both castles are at mercermuseum.org.

THREE ALTERNATIVE STASHES OF JAW-DROPPING PAINTINGS. Are you're willing to concede that the French don't have a lock on extraordinary painting the way they have a lock on buttery pastry? Then add the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (118 N. Broad St.), the Brandywine River Museum (1 Hoffman's Mill Road, Chadds Ford) and the James A. Michener Art Museum (138 S. Pine St., Doylestown) to your list of local remedies for Barnes-withdrawal syndrome.

PAFA's niche is American painting. The Brandywine is awash in Wyeths. At the Michener, the Lenfest Exhibition of Pennsylvania Impressionism - brought to you through the largesse of one of the prime movers in the Barnes relocation - features painters from the famed New Hope colony of early-20th-century painters. (Not to be confused with today's New Hope colony of middle-aged guys on Harleys.)


MONKEY-PUZZLE TREE. Although the Barnes horticulture program will continue to teach classes off-site (as will Barnes' art program), the Merion arboretum will be closed throughout the Barnes Foundation move, giving exotic specimens such as the monkey-puzzle tree a respite from the pitter-patter of broad-heeled broads.

The bad news for monkey-puzzle fans is that there doesn't seem to be another specimen to be found in any public garden near Philly. Jason Lubar, associate director of urban forestry at the Morris Arboretum, said they prefer southern climes. A small, potted monkey-puzzle that had been soldiering on indoors at Delaware's Rockwood Park & Museum (610 Shipley Road, Wilmington) died this winter.

If you're desperate, Rockwood has some potted specimens from the same evergreen family. And there's certainly no shortage of extraordinary and exotic trees under which to sprawl while the Barnes arboretum is off-limits. Go to www.philly.com/treeguide to link to a brochure from Greater Philadelphia Gardens that highlights 49 at public gardens and arboretums throughout the Delaware Valley.


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