Sharon Lorenzo’s Eighth Painting Profile

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) painted portraits of a number of his neighbors during his years living in the south of France near Arles. We know that he did over 20 works of the family of the local postman, Joseph Etienne Roulin. A simple man who sorted the mail at the train station, Roulin, his wife and children, became something of an adopted family for Vincent. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is one of the repositories of these works, with the portrait in oil of Roulin featuring his distinguished face and massive beard. I chose this work because it is a classic in the Barnes Collection which was formed by a man who would have identified with simple folk like Roulin. Albert C. Barnes fancied himself the champion of the common man and shunned the high society of his peers during his lifetime.

Educated at Central High School as the son of a butcher, Barnes went to Penn Medical School and formed a company with a partner, Herman Hille, to manufacture and sell an antiseptic named Argyrol. Barnes eventually bought out his partner and used the proceeds from his financial success to build an art collection that was devoted to promoting education and appreciation of the fine arts. In the early years of the 20th century, these works of art were very reasonably priced. Today the collection of 3,000 works is valued at over $25 billion dollars, making it one of the most valuable private collections in the world, including 181 pictures by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 21 by Picasso and so many more. Sadly, Barnes died in a car accident in 1951 at the age of 79.

Albert C. Barnes ( 1872-1951)

The Barnes Foundation today runs two campuses with the museum in central Philadelphia and 2,500 acres in Merion devoted to a lovely arboretum. In 2012 the art was moved from a small building in Merion to this new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway with protest from various sectors that Barnes would not have liked to see his collection on museum row. However, the Attorney General ruled that the deviate of the Barnes trust allowed for greater public access to these very valuable works. The collection was rehung in the new building just as Barnes had organized the works in the original Merion location.

Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia

I predict that in our lifetime, the local judiciary will grant further permissions for the Barnes to deviate from the trust and take a work such as the Roulin portrait and move it within the building to the temporary exhibition gallery to allow the curatorial staff to borrow the other five portraits by Van Gogh of the postman so that they can be seen all together. I feel that the other institutions, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Detroit Art Institute, the Kunstmuseum in Switzerland and the Kroller- Muller collection in the Netherlands would be receptive to this idea. The opportunity to study the similar works by Van Gogh would give both scholars and art lovers a chance to see the master’s hand at work, varying the poses and postures of the postman. Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works in Arles where he sought refuge in this small town with the good company and friendship of simple people like the Roulin family before his tragic death by suicide at the young age of 37, following years of a personal struggle with depression and anxiety.

The Barnes Foundation is open from Wednesday to Monday from 10-5pm with free admission for all on the first Sunday of each month. Tickets should be purchased on line in advance on the website as the building occupancy in limited by the terms of the trust. It has a wonderful book store and café for all visitors to enjoy along with a large space for private functions upon request.

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