Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre, Seurat’s Les Poseuses and around 72 other masterpieces of the Barnes Foundation were presented for the first time in France from September 1993 to January 1994 as part of an exhibition called: “From Cézanne to Matisse. Masterpieces of the Barnes Foundation”. We take a look back at this event and the exceptional project which supported it.
The unexpected journey of the treasures of the Barnes Foundation
In 1925, Albert C. Barnes, an American physicist and art lover, set up a foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, where he exhibited his private collection consisting of impressionist, post-impressionist and modernist works. He died in 1951 and stated in his will that the works should never leave the Foundation site. Only 200 students were allowed to access this treasure each year.
However, the Foundation building needed to be maintained and the works restored. In 1961 the museum began opening its doors to a wider public twice a week. A court ruling in 1992 then changed things again.
Due to the high maintenance and restoration costs, the Foundation president applied to the American courts in 1989 for permission to break the clauses of Barnes’ will preventing the works being moved. He won the case. He therefore chose to present exhibitions in major cities such as Washington, Paris, Tokyo and Toronto.
Why was France chosen? It was a way of paying tribute to the French painters whose works make up the majority of the Barnes collection. This gesture was very important because the doctor had organised an exhibition in 1923 to show off his acquisitions. It was not successful. The press branded the masterpieces ‘unsavoury art’. The style of these paintings, mostly impressionist, was not unanimously appreciated at the time.
BNP promotes the Barnes exhibition in 1993-1994
BNP, a model patron for the exhibition
This exhibition was exceptional straight away because the paintings were leaving the museum for the first time.
The French authorities were united in welcoming the event to Paris in the Musée d’Orsay but the financial support of a patron was still needed. The Barnes Foundation agreed to loan a selection of works to the Musée d’Orsay in return for partial funding of their restoration.
So the National Museums Association (RMN) asked BNP, who were joined by HAVAS, to cover the costs. The bank has worked with this institution since 1984 on cultural projects (exhibitions, art restoration). The RMN and the Musée d’Orsay funded the exhibition.
This event was met with huge success because rare and previously unseen pieces could be shared with the public. Being part of this bold project allowed BNP to establish itself as a trustworthy patron. A high-visibility communications tool was also put in place in order to reach as many people as possible.