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In 1911, Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes, 41, who had made a fortune from his co-invention of the antiseptic Argyrol, was intently investigating art and its use as an educational tool when he decided to reconnect with his public high school buddy William Glackens. Albert and William had played baseball and studied drawing together while attending Philadelphia’s prestigious Central High School, but had gone separate ways after graduation. Glackens went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then in 1895 moved to Paris for a year to paint; he returned intermittently thereafter. Glackens advised Barnes that his talents were too meagre to bring him success as an artist, so he took up the study of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and chemistry at two universities in Germany before becoming an entrepreneur. Once reunited, the two former classmates soon were discussing art and artists, sharing meals, and enjoying nature together. Glackens, nicknamed the “American Renoir,” stimulated Barnes’s appreciation of avant-garde French painting, and encouraged him to collect it.
In January 1912, Barnes commissioned Glackens to travel to Paris and buy “advanced” art for him. Barnes was so taken with the paintings Glackens acquired, which included works by Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Henri Matisse, that Barnes took two art-hunting trips to Paris himself the same year. A devotee of classical music and African-American spirituals (particularly gospel singing, which he heard as a child when he attended church with his mother), Barnes seemed drawn to the rich musicality and the love of nature Matisse expressed in his paintings.
Matisse’s musicality ran as deep as his visual talents, if not deeper. He had studied violin as a youth, and again during World War I, every day Matisse took refuge in playing his instrument. He also listened to classical music and jazz. So, too, Matisse had long been inspired by dance, particularly early wild peasant movements. In 1920, at the urging of musical revolutionary composer Igor Stravinsky, Matisse would design sets and costumes for the ballet Le Chant du rossignol commissioned by Paris-based impresario Sergei Diaghilev, with music by Stravinsky. In 1938, Matisse again would design the scenery and costumes for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo’s production of Rouge et noir, created with the music of Shostakovich’s First Symphony.
By 1912, Barnes had been hosting musical soirees in his home for over a decade. He often invited musicians to perform at these gatherings. Barnes also collected recordings of classical music and “Negro” gospel singing. He found the spirituals’ poetic language just as characteristic and powerful as their rhythmic music. When his namesake Foundation was opened in 1925, Barnes created “ensembles” of art and objects he had collected that were installed in the galleries. Periodically, he would lecture for invited guests in the main gallery. His teachings were enhanced by selected classic and spiritual recordings, which were played on a Magnavox turntable hidden in a late-18th-century sideboard. He analogized the words in Paul Robeson’s “I Got a Home in Dat Rock” with the rich, meaningful expression of color in Matisse’s paintings.
Matisse’s six-foot-high, five-foot-wide painting Le Rifain assis (Seated Riffian) (1912-13) hung above the sideboard. Riffians (derived from rif, Arabic for “living on the edge”) were tribesmen who live harsh existences in remote areas, mainly in Northwestern Africa. Matisse observed Riffians first-hand when he travelled to Morocco. Seated Riffian can barely contain the straight-sitting, dark-skinned African Rif Matisse painted in vibrant colors and patterns to express what he was feeling when he encountered him.
Dr. Barnes hoped the Foundation lectures would bring his audiences a greater appreciation of the formal qualities of his collection through the sounds and textures of African-American spirituals and classical music recordings he had collected and matched with specific artists. Often the classical recordings were of The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by his neighbor Leopold Stokowski. For years, Stokowski and his wife, Olga, would attend live music performances at the Barnes, and later Stokowski, on occasion, lectured in the main gallery.
Encouraged by their father, all three of Matisse’s children were musical. His daughter, Marguerite, and his son Pierre played the violin and the piano, and his son Jean played the cello. In 1906, after Matisse rented a home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, music-playing in domestic settings became a subject of his paintings, including Piano Lesson (1916-17), Interior with a Violin (1917), and Music Lesson (1917), which is in the Barnes collection.
In Music Lesson, Matisse paints a portrait of his wife, Amélie, and their three children relaxing. Amelie is knitting in the garden. In the living room, Jean is reading with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and Marguerite is helping her half-brother Pierre with a piece by Haydn he is practicing on the piano. Matisse is symbolically omnipresent in the picture: His violin and its case rest on the piano; his painting Woman on a High Stool hangs on the wall; and a cast of his sculpture Reclining Nude I (Aurora) sits on the piano.
In his 1912 visits to Paris, Albert Barnes visited the home and salon of American expats Gertrude and Leo Stein. Among the artworks exhibited on Gertrude and Leo Stein’s dining room wall was Matisse’s pastoral painting Bonheur de vivre (Joy of Life). Leo had purchased the picture at the 1906 Salon des Indépendants, where the term fauve (wild beast) was coined by the critic Louis Vauxcelles to refer disparagingly to Matisse and André Derain’s brushing intense colors and sensual forms in unheard of ways as a means of personal expression in their paintings.
By overlapping and gradually reducing the size of the several groups of figures in Joy of Life, Matisse presented the perspective of watching groups of figures in three dimensional space. The six figures that look farthest away form a circle of six small high-tempo, uninhibited dancers. It looks as though Matisse infused them with his own joy in music and peasant dance. Columbia University professor Gilbert Highet described Joy of Life as “a mixture of Bacchanale with wildly dancing figures twining ivy in her hair … and pastorale with woodwind music, goats … possibly inspired by the romantic Greek tale of the boy Daphnis and the girl Chloé.”
Joy of Life was so radical a departure from any painting that had come before it, artist Paul Signac, who had purchased Matisse’s Luxe, calme et volupté (1904), was flabbergasted: “Matisse, whose attempts I have liked until now seems to have gone to the dogs.” In contrast, Pablo Picasso was so inspired by Joy of Life, and determined not to be outdone by Matisse, he spent the following year creating his own breakthrough masterpiece: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Joy of Life was the most radical painting at that moment, and Matisse the most daring painter in Europe.
In 1922, Dr. Barnes bought Joy of Life from the Steins. Three decades later, storied New York Museum of Art Director Alfred Barr credited Barnes with having formed “the greatest collection of Matisse artworks in the US by the 1920s,” and judged Joy of Life to be Matisse’s most important painting. Barr also lauded Dr. Barnes’s analysis of Matisse’s art in his book The Art in Painting, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company (New York, 1925).
The primal sensual joy radiating to the viewer from the circle of naked wild dancers in the far background of Joy of Life emerged full blown four years later in Matisse’s 1910 mural painting La Danse (Dance), commissioned by Moscow collector Sergei Shchukin. For the walls of Shchukin’s palace, Matisse painted five supersized savage dancers modelled on the small wild dancers in Joy of Life. The Museum of Modern Art owns a preliminary study for Dance, which is labelled Dance (I) (1909).
Matisse told Swiss critic Pierre Courthion that in Joy of Life “he painted a ‘farandole,’ a theme I came back to in the Moscow ‘decoration' [Sergei Schchukin’s mural, Dance]." A farandole is a lively Provençal dance in which the dancers join hands and wind in and out in a chain to music in sextuple time.
“I drew the whole thing [Joy of Life] whistling and singing a farandole that had swept us along at the Moulin [Rouge]: ‘Let’s pray to Go-od, for those with scarcely any, and pray again to Go-od for those with none at all.’ So in my picture all the dancers—this is the main thing—are part of the same movement.”
The farandole would also would carry over to Barnes’s triptych mural Dance II (1932-33).
In 1930, six years after buying Joy of Life, Barnes commissioned a large wall painting for the Barnes Foundation. After spending days in the Foundation, Matisse decided to paint a successor to Sergei Shchukin’s mural. Like the figures Matisse had painted for Shchukin, the dancers in the Barnes Foundation (Dance II) emanate from the abstracted close-ups of the distant dancing figures in Joy of Life. The figures dance a strenuous farandole around a knoll or mound of earth, but the dancing will become even wilder and faster in Dance II. The five pink-fleshed figures dance in a circle on an abstracted bright green patch of grass with a blue sky background in Dance I. In the Barnes triptych, the figures are a cement gray color picking up the gray tones of the architecture. The dancing figures are embedded into white-painted church-like niches divided by arches at the top of high walls. Alfred Barr describes their movement as “some frenzied Dionysian game or tumbling act or perhaps a savage pyrrhic dance or gladiorial miming. …” Indeed, the dancers loosened by wine capture modernist balletic, coryphée.
Barnes’s preparatory notes for a November 1, 1931, lecture he gave at the Barnes reflect his plan to address “Things in common between Matisse and Straw[v]insky.” Barnes listed three characteristics the painter and the composer shared:
1. Spirit of Adventure, tend to fly high away from traditions
2. Element of drama, Element of surprise
3. Had courage to go on in spite of poverty and adversity.
These “Things in common” apply equally to Dr. Barnes and Maestro Stokowski. Barnes, the son of a disabled butcher who lost his right arm in the Civil War, and Lydia Schaffer, a devout Methodist, pulled himself out of the slums of North Philly to a mansion with his own private museum in a rich Philadelphia mainline suburb. Leopold Stokowski, the son of an English-born cabinet-maker of Polish descent and his Irish born wife, Anne-Marion, made his way to the Royal College of Music in London at age 13, skipped from one important orchestra to another until he became conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, which he led to great heights, while also recording and performing at multiple venues in the US and Europe. Both Barnes and Stokowski were unpredictable, omnivorously curious, brave, and opened-minded. Alternatively ornery and gracious, each left an indelible mark on Philadelphia and Western culture, as of course did Henri Matisse and Igor Stravinsky.
Excerpts from Mari Shaw’s upcoming book Matisse, Josephine Baker, Anri Sala and Jazz.
Learn more about The Philadelphia Orchestra's Barnes/Stokowski Festival here.
The Barnes/Stokowski Festival is generously sponsored through a gift from Mari and Peter Shaw.
Mari Shaw is an art collector, Philadelphia Orchestra supporter, and moderator of the panel discussion “Stokowski, Barnes, and Matisse,” part of the Orchestra’s Barnes/Stokowski Festival.