Travel Trends: Fascinating Philly

The historical American city also boasts some world class museums as well as the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Barnes Foundation (photo credit: The Barnes Foundation)
The Barnes Foundation
(photo credit: The Barnes Foundation)
PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia is city on the move, with two exciting recently opened museums and a newly appointed music director for its famous orchestra.
The Barnes Foundation
This houses the stupendous impressionist, post-impressionist and early modernist paintings and sculptures amassed by the business tycoon Albert C. Barnes. Many critics consider this to be among the finest collections of its kind.
Born into a working-class family in Philadelphia in 1872, Barnes obtained a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to study chemistry in Germany.
He returned to the US and together with a partner started a company which developed and marketed Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness.
Increasingly, Barnes devoted his energies to collecting art. He first became acquainted with modern painting through William Glackens, a high-school friend and prominent painter in the school of American realists.
Glackens introduced Barnes to avantgarde circles in Paris in 1912 where he met the American expatriate art collectors Gertrude Stein and her older brother, Leo. For the rest of their lives, Barnes and Leo Stein remained in close contact. Gertrude was enthralled with Picasso’s cubism style, but Leo rejected it. Because of Leo’s influence on Barnes, almost all the Picassos in the Barnes collection predate the advent of cubism.
Very early on, he recognized the talent of Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani and Jules Pascin, three Jewish painters who were resident in Paris at the time. Over the next few decades, Barnes became a major astute buyer of paintings.

The New York Armory Show
took place exactly 100 years ago. This was the first real opportunity Americans had to be exposed to cubism and other new developments in European art. Barnes’s collecting began in 1912 before the Armory Show and at this time, his collection was really revolutionary in scope and could not be readily understood by most people. An exhibition of some of his paintings in 1923 was severely criticized in conservative art circles in Philadelphia. This had the effect of alienating Barnes from the city’s art establishment.
Today the 2,500 items include some 59 paintings by Henri Matisse, which to me represented the highlight of the collection.
There are also 181 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the largest collection of its kind in the world, 67 by Paul Cézanne and 18 by Pablo Picasso.
In addition, there are four by Edgar Degas, 13 by Amedeo Modigliani, 57 by Jules Pascin, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 20 by Chaim Soutine, three by Georges Seurat and five by Vincent Van Gogh. The collection contains many other notable works by Gustave Courbet, Giorgio de Chirico, William Glackens, Claude Monet, Horace Pippin, Maurice Prendergast and Maurice Utrillo.
In addition to the paintings, the collection also contains Egyptian, Greek and Roman art as well as African sculpture, Asian prints, medieval manuscripts, and decorative art and metalwork. There are also old master paintings by Hans Baldung Grien, Francisco Goya, El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian and Paolo Veronese, although the precise attribution of some of these old master paintings is questionable. It is impossible to estimate the worth of this collection but a conservative estimate puts the value in excess of $25 billion.
The strength of the collection lies not only in the large number of paintings but in their overall quality. There are several unique paintings. One such example is the Seurat masterpiece, The Models, done with the pointillism technique which he developed. This is regarded as one of this artist’s key paintings. It depicts models posing, undressing and dressing as seen from the front, back and side. As part of the background, Seurat painted part of his supreme masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the original of which is one of the greatest treasures of The Art Institute in Chicago.
Mention should also be made of Cézanne’s seminal masterpiece The Card Players.
Cézanne made five versions and the most impressive is housed at the Barnes Collection.
A smaller version was sold in 2011 for over $250 million, the most expensive work of art ever to change hands. To see both Seurat’s Models and Cézanne’s Card Players hanging one above the other in the main room of the gallery is a real feast for the eyes and something not readily forgotten.
Another unique and unparalleled painting in the collection is Matisse’s greatest Fauve masterpiece, Bonheur de vivre (Joy of Life) from 1905-1906, which depicts an Arcadian landscape filled with a brilliantly colored forest, meadow, sea and sky and populated by nude figures at rest and in motion. The Steins bought Bonheur de Vivre soon after its completion and hung it in their dining room.
Here it was seen by Picasso, who was a frequent visitor. Picasso’s answer to Matisse’s Bonheur de vivre in particular and to the art world in general was his 1907 masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), which opened a new chapter in the history of art.
In the early 1930s, Barnes commissioned Matisse to paint a mural, The Dance, to fit in the lunettes above the windows of the foundation’s main gallery. A year into the project, Matisse realized that he had miscalculated the width of the panels and began the project again. This, which was in fact the third version, was finally installed in 1933.
To house the collection, Barnes set up a foundation which was situated in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. The foundation’s purpose was to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” Since the day it opened in 1925, it has been a unique but controversial repository of great art. Much of this probably relates to the fact that Barnes had a very difficult and contentious personality.
He fell out with almost everyone he could not dominate. Barnes limited access to the collection, and required people to make appointments by letter. Barnes was known to open his collection to factory workers and struggling artists but often rejected the applications of the rich and famous. T. S. Eliot’s request to visit was turned down. Barnes refused admission to the writer James A.
Michener, who could only gain access by posing as a simple worker.
To me it would have been more instructive to view the collection grouped by artist. However this was not to be. Barnes had his collection hung according to his own ideas about the relationships between the paintings and objects, and left detailed handwritten instructions specifying how the artworks he purchased were to be displayed.
He intentionally combined works from different time periods, geographic areas and styles. Paintings are juxtaposed near furniture and medieval, Renaissance and early American hinges and metalwork.
Thus the display is not dictated by artist or genre but rather by light, line, color and space. In addition, at his insistence, there are no wall labels. This makes visiting a unique experience.
In his will, Barnes limited public admission to his foundation to two days a week and prohibited the making of colored reproductions, touring exhibitions and the loan of works of the collection. It was only after Barnes’s death and the resolution of legal challenges that the public was allowed regular access to the collection.
Some years ago, The Foundation decided to relocate to a new facility near the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The board argued that it was necessary to attract visitors and money, although this infuriated many who loved the old Barnes. The new building, a 93,000-square-foot structure designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, opened in May 2012. With its greyand- gold limestone exterior and glass canopy, the foundation’s new home is a work of art in itself (Fig 3).
Barnes must have turned in his grave at the decision to relocate his collection. However in accordance with his wishes, the new museum does present the collection as he himself laid out, with rooms of the same size and proportion as those in Merion. Indeed, the 24 art-filled galleries are exactly as they were before. The museum also houses a large conservation laboratory, restaurant, store and facilities for temporary exhibitions. With the move, the collection has lost its unique elitist status and become more like other American museums. This is probably not such a bad thing since it allows the public easier access to this unique collection.
The National Museum of American Jewish History
This gleaming new 100,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 2010, is situated on Independence Mall in the heart of historic Philadelphia (Fig 4). From the spacious roof garden one has an excellent view of the Liberty Bell, one of the iconic symbols of American independence. The museum includes an atrium, a large exhibit area, a center for Jewish Education as well as a theater and a facility for hosting receptions.
The Museum’s vast collection of more than 30,000 artifacts represents all facets of American Jewish life. The museum also makes excellent use of state-of-the-art interactive multimedia technologies. The permanent exhibit unfolds over three floors which are entitled respectively: Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880, Dreams of Freedom, 1880- 1945 and Choices and Challenges of Freedom 1945-Today. To see the exhibits chronologically, it is necessary to commence from the top floor.
The Jewish beginnings in the US were not all that auspicious. In late summer 1654, 23 Jewish refugees, men, women and children, were expelled from Recife in Brazil after it was taken over by the Portuguese. They made their way to New Amsterdam, which later became New York. However, the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, considered them “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ” and warned about giving the Jews freedom and liberty. The Dutch West India Company administrators, however, allowed them to stay but prohibited them from worshiping publicly, owning real estate, holding office, serving in the militia or opening shops.
Other anti-Semitic incidents over the more than 350 years of the Jewish presence in the US are also chronicled. In 1862 during the Civil War, General Ulysses Grant expelled Jews from the area under his military rule.
Upon learning of this, President Lincoln instructed Grant to repeal it. The lynching of Leo Frank, falsely accused of rape and murder in Atlanta in 1915, is documented, as are the anti-Semitic attacks against Jews published by Henry Ford in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. Ford also portrayed the Jew as the world’s foremost problem in the four-volume International Jew, which he published widely in several languages.
However, the main focus of this museum is to show the American success story of the Jewish presence and how the Jews have triumphed over all adversities. The curators make the point that this success can be attributed to the basic principles of liberty and freedom which are inherent in the US Constitution.
This museum shows the Jew as quintessentially American, present at the country’s founding and at each turning point. In great detail, it chronicles the settlement of the Jews in the US. In 1880 approximately 250,000 Jews lived in US. By 1945 this had increased to almost five million.
Most Jewish immigrants landed in New York, Boston, Baltimore or Philadelphia.
Some even landed at Galveston in Texas. At its height, the Ellis Island entry to New York could process almost 5,000 arrivals a day.
Between 1850 and 1924 more than two million East European Jews left their homes, the majority coming to the US. In 1924 the Johnson- Reed act established a strict quota system that imposed country-by-country limits on immigration, which significantly curtailed the admission of Jews. Indeed, after 1924, most Jews who sought entry to US found their way barred.
An interactive map in the “Innovation and Expansion” gallery (Fig 5) explains the background that shaped the US borders as well as the economy and population changes in the 19th century as well as the absorption of European Jews.
The exhibition describes the challenges facing the Jews, their assimilation and their contributions to the arts, sciences, politics and business. There are sections on immigration, worship, work, entertainment and community and family life. The final sections also describe and detail the important role that Jews played in the civil rights and more recently the feminist movements.
One interesting exhibit described the ordination of the first rabbis of the Jewish Reform movement in 1883. At the celebration, the menu became known as “The Trefa Banquet” since it was dominated by non-kosher foods, including oysters, clams, shrimp and frogs’ legs, while readily mixing milk and meat.
Another section of the museum on the entrance level, the Hall of Fame, the Only in America Gallery, has images and artifacts honoring 18 Jewish-Americans whose achievements changed the course of history (Fig 6). These include luminaries such as Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Estée Lauder, Golda Meir, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sandy Koufax.
A new stewardship begins for the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra
The talented young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was recently appointed the eighth musical director of The Philadelphia Orchestra (Fig 7). The gala concert which inaugurated his tenure featured the ever-popular soprano Renée Fleming. Yannick (as he likes to be called) could have pleased the audience by loading the gala with popular arias. But this was clearly not his mandate. Instead Ravel, Brahms and Richard Strauss were featured in a sophisticated program.
Resplendent in a red gown, Fleming gave a glorious rendition of Ravel’s Scheherazade.
Yannick and orchestra were superb accompanists.
This was only two days after Fleming’s mesmerizing Desdemona at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she held a rather lackluster Otello production together.
Yannick also showed a profound mastery of the German repertoire with his outstanding accompaniment of Fleming in Mein Elemer from Richard Strauss’s Arabella.
The soprano brought her incomparable vocal prowess into play and gave the audience a dramatic account of this aria, one of her signature roles.
The gala also included a well balanced, structured and thoughtful performance of Brahms’s fourth symphony. This was my first visit to the Verizon Hall, the current home of the orchestra. From where I was sitting, I found the acoustics a bit dull compared to the orchestra’s previous venue at the Academy of Music.
A few days later, Yannick brought his orchestra to New York’s Carnegie Hall for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Once again he held his orchestral and choral forces as well as soloists under impeccable control. He molded the orchestra with finesse and precision.
Most impressive were the beautiful, shimmering strings. With the audience sitting in rapt silence, orchestra and choir slowly intoned the Introit and Kyrie, pianissimo, so very, very softly. The contrast between this and the power which Yannick unleashed in the thundering and eruption of the Dies Irae could not have been more dramatic. The brass spread over the upper reaches of Carnegie hall added to the effect.
Of the soloists, most impressive was British mezzo-soprano Christine Rice. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya was also in good voice, especially in the final Libera Me. Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón and Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko completed the roster of soloists. The outstanding Westminster Symphonic Choir (directed by Joe Miller) contributed enormously to the great success of the performance.
Total commitment of orchestra, soloists, choir and conductor to the music is perhaps the most apt way to describe this performance.
At the end, with his outstretched arms, Yannick managed to hold the rapt attention of the audience for some time, enabling the emotional experience of this great performance to seep through. There was absolute silence. When his arms dropped, the hall resounded with massive applause, cheers and shouts.
The Philadelphia’s Orchestra performance of the Requiem was something to cherish.
Yannick put his authoritative stamp on this great work, making it a gold standard against which to judge future performances.
In so doing he opened a new and glorious chapter in the illustrious history of his great orchestra.
Yannick has giant shoes to fill. Previous directors have included Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch. I am sure that the new director is up to this challenge.
In addition to their regular subscription series throughout the season in Philadelphia, the orchestra makes periodic visits to New York’s Carnegie Hall. Catch one of these performances if you can.

The author, Irving Spitz, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( His pictures can be seen at Irving Spitz blogs at