Dr Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951)
The American pharmacologist Dr Albert C Barnes has been called the greatest American art collector of the 20th century. After making a fortune from his invention of the antimicrobial drug Argyrol, he applied the proceeds towards the accumulation of modern art, notably paintings representing the styles of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, as well as 20th century Expressionism, and the Ecole de Paris, along with Primitive art from Africa, plus furniture and various examples of decorative art. In 1922 he established an educational institution known as the Barnes Foundation, which took over the running of his art collection, for which it built a new museum/gallery in Merion, Philadelphia. Barnes was notoriously eccentric, with a lifelong interest in African-American arts and social issues, along with a passion for educating the underprivileged. Unfortunately, the restrictive terms of the trust governing the Foundation, has meant that, up to now, the public has been largely excluded from viewing his world-famous art collection. Barnes died in a car accident at age 78.
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Albert Coombs Barnes was born the son of a butcher in Philadelphia, and allegedly grew up with a chip on his shoulder because of his working-class roots. He studied at the public Central High School in Philadelphia - alongside schoolmates William Glackens and John Sloan, who later became full-time painters - after which he took a chemistry degree at the city University, followed by a period of study (1894-5) at the University of Berlin. From 1895 to 1900, he worked in Philadelphia as a consulting chemist for the H. K. Mulford Company, and then returned to Germany to study pharmacology and complete a dissertation at Ruprecht Karls Universitat in Heidelberg. In 1901 he married Laura Leggett of Brooklyn, New York, and the following year, in collaboration with Hermann Hille, a German graduate, he invented an antiseptic drug, known as Argyrol, which became an immediate financial success due to its adoption by the French Army as a preventative treatment for venereal disease. After buying out Hille, Barnes went on to make a fortune. By his late 30s, he was able to devote most of his time to art collecting, focusing his attention on modern artists of the late-19th century and early-20th century.
OF FINE ART
The Barnes Art Collection
Thus in 1912, a full year before the Armory Show (1913) brought European avant-garde art to the United States, Barnes commissioned the painter William Glackens, to travel to Paris and buy a range of modern French painting. Glackens duly did so, returning with 20 paintings that formed the nucleus of Barnes' collection. Barnes himself visited Paris many times over the following decades, and negotiated numerous advantageous deals with both dealers and artists. He bought his first Picasso, for instance, for less than $100 (£25).
He was a notable collector of the Impressionists Renoir (180 works), Cezanne (70 works), and Degas (11 works); the Fauvist Henri Matisse (60 works); members of the Ecole de Paris including Pablo Picasso (46 works), Chaim Soutine (20 works), Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseau (18 works), and Modigliani (16 works). He also collected early expressionist paintings by Van Gogh (7 works), and examples of Neo-Impressionism by Georges Seurat (6 works). Other modern artists in his collection, include the realist Gustave Courbet, the "classical" modernist Edouard Manet, the symbolist/colourist Paul Gauguin, the peerless Impressionist landscape painter Claude Monet, the Parisian urban genre-painter Maurice Utrillo, the pioneer surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, and the Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.
The Barnes Foundation
In 1922, he set up the Barnes Foundation, to which he donated his art collection, along with a significant endowment. The Foundation then built The Barnes Gallery, in Lower Merion Township. A critic of public education and the museum, as well as the "arts establishment" as symbolized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he arranged his collection according to the relationships between paintings and objects. Items were labelled in a minimalist manner, without conventional curatorial descriptions, so that they could be approached and studied with an open mind. In addition, he regulated the Foundation so that public access was forbidden during his lifetime. Other restrictive rules prevented works in the collection being loaned or sold, while even after his death all exhibits had to remain in exactly the same positions that they were in when he died. Unfortunately, even after 1961, when some public access was permitted, the inconvenient location of the museum (in a residential area), allied to the effect of certain financial irregularities, led to the near bankruptcy of the Foundation, which - despite owning an art collection estimated to be worth in excess of $25 billion - could not even afford to maintain its buildings in good repair.
Fortunately, in 1993-5, following legal intervention by the courts, some 80 Impressionist paintings from the collection went on a world tour, which generated millions of dollars for the upkeep of the Foundation. Then, during the early 2000s, a recovery program was instituted, involving the relocation of the Barnes Foundation and Gallery to a more accessible site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This should secure the art collection, together with its educational programs, for the forseeable future. Nevertheless, controversy still surrounds the Foundation. In 2009, a documentary film entitled The Art of the Steal, laid out the story of Barnes' collection and its subsequent "appropriation" by the city of Philadelphia.
As well as building up one of the greatest personal collections of modern art, Barnes also wrote several books outlining his theory of art aesthetics. They included: The Art in Painting; The French Primitives and Their Forms; The Art of Henri Matisse; The Art of Renoir; and The Art of Cezanne. The last four books were co-written with Violette de Mazia. In addition, Barnes co-wrote Art and Education with Dewey, Buermeyer, Mullen, and de Mazia.