A RECLUSE among museums, the Barnes Foundation of Merion, Pa., has suddenly been pulled out into the international spotlight along with its treasure house of French Impressionist paintings.
Judge Louis Stefan of the Orphan's Court of Montgomery County, Pa., handed down a ruling last month that permits the Barnes Foundation to break the restrictions its founder, the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes, imposed to keep his collection shrouded from the world.
The ruling allows the Barnes Foundation to send its masterpieces on an international art tour to raise $7 million for needed improvements and modernization of the building that has housed the gallery since l925.
The National Gallery of Art is organizing an exhibition of 80 of the more than l,000 priceless paintings from the Barnes Collection, which will run from May 9 to Sept. 6, l993. It is titled "Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation: Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Early Modern."
The exhibit will focus on the collection's strengths, represented by l80 Renoirs, 70 Cezannes, and 60 Matisses, as well as paintings by other major artists such as Monet, Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Modigliani, Braque, and Picasso.
The Barnes Foundation has been one of the hidden mysteries of the art world; the public was not even allowed to see it until a successful lawsuit in l961. Founder Barnes had established rules that only those people he or, later, his foundation approved would be admitted; scholars and art historians were not allowed in. Few members of the public or the art world have even seen color reproductions of the paintings because of the Foundation's publication bans and visiting restrictions.
Part of the recent court ruling is that restoration of the building, which will be closed during the tour, will take place as the exhibition travels.
JUDGE Stefan's ruling follows disputes between the Barnes trustees and the De Mazia Trust. Violette De Mazia, a prot of Dr. Barnes who was the vice president of the institution and its education director, created the trust in her name. The trust is suing the Barnes Foundation, alleging it is violating its charter's rules regarding removing or changing any of the collection.
Judge Stefan has ordered that after the tour the paintings must be returned to their places on the walls of the gallery, as Dr. Barnes stipulated. This reportedly will be the first and only tour.
* Following its appearance at the National Gallery, the exhibition will travel to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.