After walking up a long, gray path into the spacious, high–ceilinged lobby of the Barnes Foundation, you are quickly immersed in 19th century photography—this is the current exhibition, From Today, Painting is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France, which will run until May 12.

This exhibit features works from over sixty pioneer photographers, including Felice Beato, Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Félix Nadar, Gustave Le Gray, Étienne-Jules Marey, and William Henry Fox Talbot. The collection includes about 250 photographs from the mid–19th century, a time that was transforming the worlds of painting and photography. 

The title of this exhibition is said to come from Paul Delaroche, a prominent French painter. When Delaroche first saw a photograph, he exclaimed “From today, painting is dead!” This exclamation encapsulates the anxiety that many painters felt about the onset of photography as an artistic medium. Many painters wondered whether or not photography was destined to replace painting. Before photography, paintings were the medium used to capture things like portraits and historical moments.

Adolphe Braun. Vallee de Chamonix, c. 1870, Carbon print. Courtesy of The Collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

Rather than replacing painting, photography created the opportunity for painting to become something else. It led to wonderful advancements in the world of painting,  like impressionism and post–impressionism. Painting was no longer the only means of depicting real life, so it took different forms, which comprise many of the magnificent pieces of artwork that we admire today. 

While it may seem overwhelming to visit both the permanent and current exhibits at the Barnes—as the permanent collection alone spans over two floors and more than twenty rooms—it is well worth it. The permanent exhibit is home to many types of works, from fine arts and fine paintings to more artisan and craft work, including impressionist and post impressionist works, early modernist paintings, African masks, tools, sculptures, and almost 900 pieces of French metal work. There are even classrooms offering "orientation talks" at the top of every hour. 

From Today, Painting Is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France, 2019. The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Jack Ramsdale.

The first photography exhibit at the Barnes was displayed in 2016, called Live and Life Will Give You Pictures: Masterworks of French Photography, 1890–1950. Both photography exhibitions have been lent by photography collectors Judy Hochberg and Michael Mattis, who have an unimaginable collection from some of the very first photographs to almost current time.

While the Barnes Foundation is impressive on its own, the current photography exhibition is even more compelling because of its ties to Penn. As part of the 2018 Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Seminar "Ars Moriendi: Life and Death in Early Photography," Penn professor Aaron Levy and Barnes Foundation president Thom Collins teamed up to make the exhibit an educational venture. Students in the class helped to create some of the material for the exhibition.  

Peter Henry Emerson. Gathering Water Lilies, 1885, Platinum print. Courtesy of The Collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.

On the way out of the exhibit, a woman turned to her husband and exclaimed, “We’ve got less than a half hour. I want to make sure we caught everything ... there might be another spot over there!” Set a day aside to visit the Barnes Foundation and take in some of the earliest works of photography ever recorded.