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It’s Personal at the Barnes Foundation

W hen it comes to art, I’ve always been a fan of impressionism. So you can imagine my delight upon visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which is home to one of the world’s most outstanding collections of impressionist painting.

The foundation was created by Alfred Barnes, a prominent Philadelphia-area doctor and businessman, in 1922. Barnes was successful and a huge lover of impressionist art, and collected thousands of works by the world’s top impressionists painters. For almost 90 years, his collection was on view in his country estate near Philadelphia. In 2012, the Barnes Foundation moved to a brand-new museum downtown, where it gives visitors an extraordinary look at some of the most compelling art of the 19th century.

I spent an hour in the new museum when I visited Philadelphia this winter and was staggered by what I saw: Where many museums are proud of a handful of works by famous artists, the Barnes Foundation has the largest collection of work by great impressionists that I’ve ever seen. The exhibits include 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne and 59 by Matisse, as well as various other paintings by van Gogh, Degas, Picasso, Monet and other well-known artists.

There are more than 800 paintings in the collection. Barnes filled every wall of his home with the artwork, and the rooms of the museum are set up to replicate his exact layout. There are no exhibit panels or extensive labels to get in the way — simply wall after wall of extraordinary art.

As I roamed through the museum, I found my eye becoming more attuned to the subtle touches and personal styles of each artist. After a while, I could identify a Renoir, a Matisse or a Cezanne work by its characteristic qualities before even seeing the small identifying tag mounted on each frame.

It was as if I was becoming one with the art.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.