OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

November 6, 1997

Dr. Albert C. Barnes:
The Irascible Art Collector

by Rex W. Cranmer LL.B.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


Albert Coombs Barnes was born January 2, 1872, in Philadelphia. He died July 24, 1951, at age 79, when he drove his Packard through a stop sign and was struck by a truck traveling on the arterial. He had directed that no funeral services be held maybe aware that lack of attendance would be embarrassing because his enemies far out-numbered his friends. During his 79 years Dr. Barnes accumulated one of the most prestigious fine art collections in existence, and established a foundation which still continues to own and preserve the collection.

Albert C. Barnes' parents were of the lower working class and during his youth Barnes experienced times of painful poverty. He did have a superior intelligence and at age 13 was admitted to the Central High School of Philadelphia which accepted only students with high potential. He graduated 4 years later with an A.B. degree. The high school followed the practice of awarding A.B. degrees although they were not accepted as equivalent to degrees of collegiate rank. At age 17 he entered the University of Pennsylvania as a medical student and earned his M.D. degree in three years.

Barnes was not interested in practicing medicine and elected to fulfill his internship requirements at the State Hospital for the Insane at Warren. Pennsylvania. What he did the next few years is not entirely clear, but it did involve his engaging in the study of chemistry and philosophy as he later remarked, '`I became a philosophical chemist". This interest prompted him to go to Germany which was recognized as the leading chemical research center of the world. There he supported himself by giving English lessons while taking courses in chemistry but after 18 months he was forced to give up for lack of funds and returned home. He soon found employment with a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Philadelphia where his talent for chemistry and philosophy rapidly advanced him to the position of manager of advertising and sales promotion. In the year 1900 he persuaded his employer to send him to Germany to recruit a chemist to work for the company in the development of new pharmaceuticals. On this trip, Barnes enrolled in chemistry and philosophy courses at the University of Heidelberg. He did not neglect his assignment as he was able to convince Hermann Hille who had just received his Ph.D. from Heidelberg to emigrate to the United States and accept employment in the Philadelphia firm. Hille was never satisfied with the skimpy laboratory space and lack of adequate equipment to say nothing of low compensation as provided him by the company although he did come up with some usable products. After two years he and Barnes agreed to form a partnership in which Barnes would suggest subjects and Hille would perform research and develop salable items. Barnes first suggested cheese but Hille rejected that notion and a further suggestion of a new bread which proved to be a failure. Then Barnes came up with the idea of developing a substance which would permit the application of silver as a disinfectant without the caustic property associated with silver nitrate. While this was not a new idea. Hille was able to produce a substance which permitted a vastly larger quantity of silver to treat infected areas than anything previously devised. The partners named it Argyrol. It is not clear whether the development of Argyrol occurred while both men were still employed by the pharmaceutical company or after they had left and formed the partnership. While all this was going on, Barnes had met, courted and married Laura Leggett of Brooklyn, N. Y. who was the daughter of well- to-do parents who could trace their ancestors back; a couple of centuries or more. When Barnes and Hille left their employer, Barnes was able to obtain a loan of $1600 from his mother-in-law to purchase supplies and equipment for the new enterprise. They obtained a three story building in a rundown section for a rent of $25 per month and set up offices and laboratories in the first two stories and Hille lived on the third floor. While Hille manufactured Argyrol and put it bottles for shipment. Barnes devoted his efforts to promoting acceptance and sale of their product. He did not follow the traditional procedure of marketing through drug wholesalers, but went directly to the doctors with testimonials from leading practitioners of the unique merit of Argyrol. His efforts were amazingly successful and soon Argyrol became a virtual gold mine. With success, however, dissension cropped up between the partners with Barnes refusing to disclose the financial affairs to Hille, and Hille keeping the precise method of manufacturing Argyrol his secret. In 1907, Barnes brought a suit to dissolve the partnership and the court conducted a sale between the partners and Barnes won ownership of the business for $350,000. Thereafter he gave no mention of Hille s part in creating Argyrol, but claimed that he had invented it.

The business continued its profitable course and Barnes found he had more time to devote to an interest in art. He had attempted to paint pictures himself but was able to recognize his inadequacy to produce high quality art. He turned to collecting the paintings of accomplished artists through dealers in Philadelphia and New York accepting their advice as to which works he should acquire. One of his classmates from Central High School, William Glackens, had become a well recognized painter in New York and Barnes sought him out and asked him to look at his collection. Glackens told Barnes that his collection was mediocre and that France was where truly significant modern art was developing. Glackens had spent much time in France and was acquainted with many of the leading artists and dealers. In 1912 Barnes sent Glackens to Paris with $20,000 to spend on paintings. In two weeks of intensive effort Glackens had exhausted the sum and returned with paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Gauguin, and Cezanne, although there does not appear to be a definite list. Barnes was not enthused by the paintings at first but was persuaded to keep them for a period of time and if still not pleased, Glackens would purchase them. Barnes started to study the paintings and developed an understanding of what it was that was so exciting in the field of modern art. Barnes never had another painting purchased for him by someone else but always relied on his own judgment on the ultimate decisions to buy. Barnes engaged in a concerted effort to learn about art and what factors distinguished great creations from the mundane. He traveled to European countries visiting their museums and standing before paintings with the texts of art authorities in hand trying to gain knowledge which would unlock the mystery. The explanations offered by the experts he found to be boring and of no real help to him because they expressed subjective conclusions and were often discussions of historical events associated with the paintings and not about what in the content of the paintings themselves rendered them masterpieces. He felt that a scientific approach to the analysis of a painting was required and as he studied the paintings he began to assess the content as to its lines, colors and composition to present an aesthetically pleasing result. Through his friend Glackens he gained acquaintance with many of me artists and art collectors in Paris and he would listen carefully to their conversations and discussed painting with them which added greatly to his understanding. On his trips to Europe he would purchase paintings for his collection in large numbers which made him quite welcome to studios and sales galleries. Some mornings when he was leaving his hotel to visit some gallery or artist, he would be confronted by a crowd of artists and agents holding paintings up for inspection hoping to entice him to purchase.

While in Paris Barnes met Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo both of whom were avid art collectors. Gertrude was put off by Barnes' rude manners although she did sell him a couple of paintings by Matisse from her collection. Leo and Barnes hit it off much better and their friendly relationship endured for many years before it foundered. They enjoyed discussing art and arguing contrasting opinions. Leo was early in recognition of the genius of Picasso and he was partial to Renoir and Cezanne, and to a lesser extent, Matisse, which matched Barnes' taste. In 1913 Barnes wrote to Leo that he had 25 Renoirs and a dozen Cezannes as well as 12 Picassos in his collection. In 1920 Leo asked Barnes to help him sell some of his collection as he needed the money and Barnes undertook to aid him. He was able to raise $30,000 for the collection including his purchase of some Renoirs and a Cezanne at prices agreeable to Leo. By this time Barnes had over 100 Renoirs. His collection had grown to the point where he had covered most of the wall space in all rooms of his house and most of the factory. Barnes decided he should build a museum in which to house his paintings.

Barnes and his wife lived in Merion, a small community just outside of Philadelphia and Barnes had endeavored to purchase a 12 acre property across the street from their house. The property was an arboretum owned by Col. Joseph L. Wilson who had rejected all offers until 1922 when he was persuaded that Laura Barnes who had a passion for horticulture would see to it that her husband would honor the agreement to maintain the arboretum. Barnes engaged Paul Philippe Cret, a Frenchman who was a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, to design the museum to be built on a corner of the arboretum. Cret planned a French Renaissance style structure with numerous moderately large galleries connected with each other and each with a window for natural light. Barnes immediately departed to Europe to purchase limestone to construct the building. On this trip he also indulged in a prodigious splurge of art acquisition. He returned to the United States having purchased 900 tons of stone and over 100 paintings reportedly valued at over a half million dollars. On this trip he discovered a Lithuanian painter named Chaim Soutine, and made the acquaintance of Jacques Lipchitz. He was the first to purchase works from Soutine which made Soutine an instant celebrity; and he purchased statues from Lipchitz and ordered 5 reliefs for niches in the museum.

News of the collection amassed by Barnes became the source of considerable interest among critics and art lovers so Barnes consented to allowing 75 paintings to be exhibited at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. An earlier show of modern art in 1921 had been lambasted by the press and particularly a group of prominent doctors who declared the artists to be insane and the paintings degenerate. Barnes wrote an introduction in the catalog of his exhibit in which he urged that while the paintings might seem radically different, the artists were all familiar with the traditional forms of art and were developing new frontiers, and their paintings should be carefully studied. His advice was totally ignored by most commentators who complained that the pictures depicted morbid and unseemly subjects which were better avoided. This reaction infuriated Barnes and he never overcame his hatred of those who disparaged his judgment in the selection of his collection.

Barnes had a high regard for members of the lower class and always maintained that a person was able to improve his position if he was given the opportunity and encouragement to educate himself. He implemented this philosophy at the Argyrol factory by hanging paintings on the walls and conducting discussions with the workers on art appreciation and other philosophical matters. He decided that 6 hours work on the business was sufficient and the other 2 hours be devoted to the education program. Among the philosophical subjects considered was a book by John Dewey entitled, `'How We Think". Barnes admired Dewey thinking and in the academic year of 1917-18 he enrolled in Columbia University and attended Dewey's weekly seminar. This led to a warm personal friendship which lasted through the rest of Dewey's lifetime. Barnes frequently called upon Dewey's prestige to bolster up and enhance some position or project in which he was involved.

With the decision to house his collection in the museum, Barnes also decided to establish an educational foundation with an endowment of six million dollars to which he conveyed the building and the collection. The by-laws of the foundation were tightly drawn to render the foundation Barnes' alter ego. The board consisted of Barnes. his wife, two trusted employees and Col. Wilson, the Cornier owner of the arboretum. The sole authority to acquire additional works of art for the collection was vested in Barnes and if the foundation were to terminate, its assets would revert to Barnes. Use of the collection was limited to the educational program conducted at the museum and severe restrictions placed on any person not a student. Formal opening of the foundation building was in March, 1925 with speeches including one by John Dewey as educational director who dedicated the foundation to the Cause of Education. The foundation had three principal educators on its staff: Laurence Burmeyer, an instructor of aesthetics at Princeton; Thomas H. Munroe, a Dewey student and instructor at Columbia; and Mary Mullen, of no formal education but a trusted employee of Barnes. There were no acceptable texts on art education for study so Barnes in six months wrote a 500 page book entitled "Art in Painting" based upon his own experience over the years of a scientific analysis. The book is still being used in foundation classes conducted to day, but has not found wide acceptance elsewhere because its language is so tedious. No tuition was charged the students and admission as a student was determined after an interview by a staff member. Applications for admission were favored if the applicant appeared to be uneducated and a worker or a serious painter, and disfavored if the applicant was highly educated or financially well off. In Barnes' opinion, persons who had studied art in traditional courses had been corrupted and would not benefit from the scientific method.

Barnes had planned that the foundation would be taken over by his alma mater, as the by-laws provided that, after the deaths of him and Mrs. Barnes, University of Pennsylvania should have the power to designate the foundation's board members. In 1924 an agreement with the university was made whereby university students might enroll in foundation classes and receive university credits, and an instructor from the foundation would lecture in the university s fine arts program. A storm of protest arose from the public schools art department, the Philadelphia Academy and other art educators who could not abide the thought of me foundation's educational program legitimization. Barnes always believed anyone taking a position opposed to him was an enemy, and he responded vehemently to all his enemies. In this case, he wrote to all me members of me Academy including such phrases as:

'`Intelligent Philadelphians are wondering why a collection of paintings which many people—including the director of the Louvre and the director of the Pinakothek, Munich-have said is one of the most important in the world, should be condemned by a teacher in your institution, which is generally referred to as the 'Morgue "'; and "The fact seems to be that your director-Neros are still fiddling arid your senile, befuddled faculty are producing vituperation instead of intelligent, sober instruction. "'

The experiment did not meet Barnes' expectations as the students were few in number and those who did attend had trouble understanding the instruction. Barnes thought they had been "debauched" by the university's fine arts program. After two years he wrote to the university terminating the arrangement. As the years went on, there were various other attempts by Barnes to interest the university in projects that he felt would lead to an improvement in the fine arts program, but none of them was successful. Finally, in 1950, Harold Stassen became president of Penn ostensibly to breathe fresh air into staid old institution. Barnes eagerly offered his services to reorganize the fine arts department, but after a prolonged exchange of correspondence with Stassen which Barnes suspicioned was really directed toward acquiring his foundation rather than accepting his ideas, he concluded Stassen was "what psychologists term a 'mental delinquent,' variously known to layman as 'dumb bunny, false alarm, phony.' " At this time he caused the by-laws of the foundation to be changed to delete the University of Pennsylvania. As a child Barnes had been taken to Negro Methodist revival meetings in New Jersey and the singing and emotional fervor of the congregation made a lasting impression on him. In the Argyrol factory he had Negro employees and he felt a challenge to improve their dismal lot by educating their minds. His interest in African art and artifacts further bolstered his admiration of the African culture. It is no wonder then, that following the termination of his efforts to make satisfactory arrangements with the University of Pennsylvania, he turned to Lincoln University, one of the oldest Africa-American education institutions, as his choice to receive and manage the Barnes Foundation, and it is now the operating control of the Foundation.

Barnes never stopped seeking out and purchasing works of art to add to the collection. Although paintings predominate, Barnes also acquired sculpture, antiques, native art and jewelry during his usual annual trips to Europe and elsewhere. He was first inspired by the French modern paintings, but as his knowledge and appreciation grew. he began to expand his interest to all periods. He bought old masters, early works by anonymous artists, and particularly African native artifacts and paintings. He did not neglect America's art adding paintings, antiques and hand-crafted furniture and metal works. In his judgment the principles that defined great painting applied to all manner of art regardless of the era in which it was created. In the museum he displayed the art in groups hung or arranged on the walls to show the relation of common characteristics among new and old paintings, artifacts and antiques. The intent was to implement the educational program of the foundation, not to furnish the viewer with the customary gallery format. Missing are the usual nameplates giving the title and name of the artist and date of its execution all of which Barnes contended was irrelevant to the scientific study of the painting. The visitor will find, however, a chart in each gallery which supplies the omitted information, but there are no sections devoted solely to the worlds of say, Renoir, or Cezanne, or Matisse, and the devotee of any particular artist has to roam the entire museum to discover all of his paintings. It is no wonder the collection enjoys such a superlative reputation with 180 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, plus a number of works by Picasso, Seurat, Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Manet, Monet, Degas, and at least 50 other artists. I visited the museum for the first time a month ago and found the experience to be mentally overwhelming and physically exhausting.

Barnes took the early reaction to the 1922 Academy exhibit as evidence of his rejection by the establishment and his resentment was expressed by access to the collection by those he classed as his enemies. In his view, those who visited galleries for personal enjoyment were "daydreamers" who should seek their pleasures in a movie theater. Only persons who received Barnes' approval were admitted to the museum and anyone overheard criticizing the exhibit was asked to leave. Any friend of Barnes admitted to the museum who undertook to invite a companion or who presumed to obtain permission for another person to visit, joined the list of enemies as Barnes regarded such conduct as an attempt to use him. A printed card was sent to applicants requesting permission to view the collection advising them that the museum was restricted to students enrolled in the educational program. Walter P. Chrysler, a famous art collector in his own right, once wrote for permission to visit and received a note in reply from a fictitious secretary advising him that Barnes was too busy to respond because he was in the garden trying to break the record for goldfish swallowing and enclosing the rejection card. After Barnes death the Attorney-General sued to require as a condition of continuing its tax exemption the public be allowed reasonable access to the museum. As a result the Barnes Foundation is now open to up to 200 visitors per day on a first come, first served basis, Thursday afternoons and all day Friday through Sunday upon payment of $5.00 admission charge. Barnes also refused any requests for the loan of paintings to other shows on the ground that it would deprive the students of needed tools in their education. In recent years, however, the Foundation sought permission of court to permit a traveling exhibition of some paintings to raise funds for needed repairs to the Foundation buildings. Permission was granted and in 1993, the paintings were shown in the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. and in Paris at the Musee D'Orsay. By fortunate coincidence I happened to be in both Washington and in Paris during the times the Raveling show was exhibited and can attest to its enthusiastic reception in both countries. There were such crowds I could never get closer than the fourth rank to view any painting.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes has qualified himself for a high rating among the leading art collectors of America even though he fails miserably as the most admired. He grew up in a neighborhood requiring him to fight to protect himself and what few possessions he had. He was highly intelligent and acquired a good education very early in life but missed out on developing any manners or social graces. He set out to remedy his impoverished condition and by intelligent hard effort succeeded by his middle thirties when he became a millionaire. He continually expanded his intellect studying philosophy and chemistry and acquired the ability to read and converse in both French and German languages. By dint of intense study he taught himself how to recognize and appreciate high quality art and wrote essays and at least 4 books on the subject including the Art in Painting and works on Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse. Although scorned by the art community of the United States his contribution to the development of French modern art was respected in France where he was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1926, and again in 1936 he was named an officer of the Legion of Honor. He had deep sympathy for the poor and the common man and supported the principles of F D. R. He was generous to those he approved of and paid the expenses of many Foundation students to go to Europe for the summer to study art. So long as friendly feelings existed he was able to hold his own in conversations with some of the leading intellectuals of the times. He did, however, have a glaring deficiency: his personality. He insisted that he was always right and anyone disagreeing with him was mentally deficient and classed as an enemy. He attacked his enemies with outrageous accusations through letters to the press and others who might have acquaintance with target of his scorn and he continued his feud well beyond reasonable periods. And he never forgot or forgave an enemy. John Dewey was one of the very few persons who remained supportive of Barnes to the end. When asked by an acquaintance how he was able to tolerate Barnes' conduct, Dewey is credited with this explanation. "Dewey would explain Barnes as a man with an inferiority complex—he had originally been a pugilist—and claimed that since he was the only person who could talk back to Barnes and exercise any restraint on him, it wouldn't improve Barnes to break off from him." In addition, he confessed that he had "found his company interesting, especially when he talked about pictures and that he owed him an intellectual debt."

Bibliography of Albert Coombs Barnes, The lrascible Art Collector

  • Greenfeld, Howard
    The Devil and Dr. Barnes 1987 Viking Press

  • Schack William
    Art and Argyrol, 1960, A. S. Barnes & Co. Inc.

  • A Passion For Art, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse And Dr. Barnes, 1995 Corbus Publishing, CD ROM

  • Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation
    1993, Alfred A Knopf

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