Albert C. Barnes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Albert C. Barnes
Albert C. Barnes.jpg
Albert C. Barnes in 1940
Born Albert Coombs Barnes
(1872-01-02)January 2, 1872
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Died July 24, 1951(1951-07-24) (aged 79)
near Malvern, Pennsylvania, United States
Cause of death Traffic collision
Residence Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania
Alma mater University of Pennsylvania
Known for Chemist, businessman, physician, art collector

Albert Coombs Barnes (January 2, 1872 – July 24, 1951) was an American physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, and educator, and the founder of the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Albert Barnes was born in Philadelphia to working-class parents, his father, a butcher, lost his right arm at the Battle of Cold Harbor during the American Civil War, and became a letter carrier after the war.[3] Barnes' mother was a devout Methodist who took him to African-American camp meetings and revivals.[3]

Albert Barnes earned a spot at the public academic Central High School in Philadelphia. There he became friends with William Glackens, who later became an artist and advised him on his first collecting efforts. Barnes went on to college and medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, earning his way by tutoring, boxing, and playing semi-professional baseball. By age 20, he was a medical doctor,[3] he went into research as a chemist rather than clinical practice.


In 1899, with a German chemist named Hermann Hille, Barnes developed a mild silver nitrate antiseptic solution, he formed a company and marketed the drug as Argyrol, a treatment for gonorrhea and a preventative of gonorrheal blindness in newborn infants. The drug was an immediate financial success.[4] Barnes proved adept at business. To avoid having Argyrol being stolen by competitors, he convinced Hille not to patent it, he marketed directly to physicians, and took his product abroad.[3] Within five years of starting the business in 1902, the firm cleared $250,000 in profits ($6,920,192 today[5]),[3] he bought out Hille, and in 1907, Barnes had become a millionaire at the age of 35. In July 1929, he sold his business for a reported sum of $6 million, the move was well timed, as he sold before the 1929 stock market crash and the discovery of antibiotics, which replaced Argyrol in use.[3][4]

Marriage and family[edit]

After starting to earn income from the sale of Argyrol, Barnes married Laura Leggett (c.1880 - 1966), from a well-to-do family in Brooklyn, New York. They had no children.[6]

Laura Barnes led the development of the Arboretum and horticultural program that are integral to the Barnes Foundation and its setting; in 1928, Barnes appointed her as director of the Arboretum. She founded the Arboretum School in 1940, where she taught as an instructor, she regularly corresponded and exchanged plant specimens with other major institutions, such as the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She succeeded her husband as president of the Foundation after his death in 1951, she bequeathed her private art collection to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. [6]

Her work was recognized by the 1948 Schaffer Memorial Medal from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. In 1955, she became an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She received an honorary doctorate in horticultural science from St. Joseph's University of Philadelphia.[6]

Art collecting[edit]

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (1905–6), oil on canvas. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. It was called Fauvist, bringing Matisse both public derision and notoriety.

In 1911, when he was 40, Barnes began to dedicate himself to the study and collecting of art, he commissioned one of his former high school classmates, the painter William Glackens, who had been living in Paris, to buy several "modern" French paintings for him. In January 1912, Barnes gave Glackens $20,000 to buy paintings for him in Paris. Glackens returned with the 33 works of art.[7]

In 1912, during a stay in Paris, Barnes was invited to the home of Gertrude and Leo Stein, where he met artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In the 1920s, the art dealer Paul Guillaume introduced him to the work of Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico, and Chaim Soutine among others. With money, an excellent eye, and the poor economic conditions during the Great Depression, Barnes was able to acquire much important art at bargain prices. "Particularly during the Depression," Barnes said, "my specialty was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their heads."[citation needed]

For example, in 1913, Barnes acquired Picasso's Peasants and Oxen for $300 — about $6,500 in 2010 — and he picked up dozens more canvasses for a dollar apiece, he paid $4,000 for The Joy of Life. The highest sum he appears to have paid for a painting was $200,000 (one million francs) in 1925 to the dealer Ambroise Vollard for the largest of Cezanne's five Card Players [8] [3]

Barnes's collection grew to include 69 Cézannes — more than in all the museums in Paris — as well as 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 178[9] Renoirs, the 2,500 items in the collection include major works by (among others) Henri Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, and Vincent van Gogh.

The Barnes Foundation[edit]

In 1922, Barnes created a foundation to display his collection according to his aesthetic theories, strongly influenced by the American philosopher, John Dewey, he had a mansion built to display the collection, designed by the Franco-American architect Paul Philippe Cret, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1925, the Barnes Foundation opened as an educational institution, not a museum,[3] it was an educational institution based on his private collection of art, which was hung according to his theories of aesthetics and without curatorial commentary. The collection has numerous paintings by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist masters, as well as furniture, ancient artifacts, and highly crafted objects from different time periods. He created numerous restrictions to limit the number of visitors and intended to attract students.

Barnes had his collection hung according to his own ideas about showing relationships between paintings and objects; for instance, paintings were placed near furniture and finely crafted medieval, Renaissance and Early American hinges and metalwork. The pieces were identified in a minimal manner, without traditional curatorial comment, so that viewers could approach them without mediation.[citation needed] Requiring people to write for appointments, he gave preference to students over members of Philadelphia society.


Barnes limited access to the collection, and often required people to make appointments by letter. Applicants sometimes received rejection letters "signed" by Barnes's dog, Fidèle-de-Port-Manech; in a famous case, Barnes refused admission to the writer James A. Michener, who gained access to the collection only by posing as an illiterate steelworker.[10]

Having watched the Philadelphia Museum of Art take control of the collection of his late lawyer, John Johnson, Barnes tried to prevent the same from happening to his collection, the Foundation's Indenture of Trust and other documents provide that the Barnes Foundation was to remain an educational institution, open to the public only two to three days a week. His art collection could never be loaned or sold; it was to stay on the walls of the foundation in exactly the places the works were at the time of his death.[11]

Up through the early 1990s, long after Barnes's death, access to the collection was extremely limited; in keeping with Barnes' wishes, the Foundation restricted the reproduction in color of many works, so they could only be seen in person.[12] Because of these restrictions, many people never saw works that were part of the "conversation" of artists and history, for example, the critic Hilton Kramer wrote of Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre: "owing to its long sequestration in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, which never permitted its reproduction in color, it is the least familiar of modern masterpieces. Yet this painting was Matisse's own response to the hostility his work had met with in the Salon d'Automne of 1905."[13]

Relationship with art world[edit]

Barnes was known as an eccentric art collector,[1][14] in part for his antagonism to the discipline of art history, which he said "stifles both self-expression and appreciation of art."[15] His outspoken criticism of public education and the museums of the time were controversial, he set up his foundation to allow visitors to have a direct approach to the collection, without the interposition of curators' thoughts. He arranged it with a mixture of hand-crafted items, ancient artifacts, furniture and paintings of different ages. Items are labeled by title, artist and date, he created the Foundation, he said, not for the benefit of art historians, but for the students.[16]

In 1923, a public showing of Barnes' collection proved that it was too avant-garde for most people's taste at the time, the critics ridiculed the show, prompting Barnes' long-lasting and well-publicized antagonism toward those he considered part of the art establishment. For example, he said to Edith Powell, of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, that she would never be a real art critic until she had relations with the ice man.[3]

Barnes' interests included what came to be called the Harlem Renaissance, and he followed its artists and writers; in March 1925, Barnes wrote an essay "Negro Art and America", published in the Survey Graphic of Harlem, which was edited by Alain Locke.[17] He explained his admiration of what could be called "black soul".


Barnes wrote several books about his theories of art aesthetics, he was assisted by his educational staff, whom he also encouraged to publish their own writings. From 1925-26, he and the staff published articles in the Journal of the Barnes Foundation.[18]

  • The Art in Painting (1925).
  • The French Primitives and Their Forms from Their Origin to the End of the Fifteenth Century (1931), with Violette de Mazia (1899-1988). A native of Paris, at the time she was a teacher at the Foundation; in 1950, Barnes appointed her as Director of Education.[19]
  • The Art of Renoir (1935), with De Mazia.
  • The Art of Henri-Matisse (1933), with De Mazia.[20]
  • The Art of Cézanne, with De Mazia.
  • Art and Education (1929-1939), with John Dewey, Lawrence Buermeyer, Thomas Mullen, and De Mazia. These were collected essays by Barnes, Dewey, and his educational staff, originally published in the Journal of the Barnes Foundation (1925-1926). (Barnes hired Buermeyer (1889-1970) and Mullen (1897-), former students of Dewey, each to serve as Assistant Director of Education for a time; Dewey was Director during this period in what was essentially an honorary position.) [18]
Giorgio de Chirico, Portrait of Albert C. Barnes, 1926

Later years[edit]

In 1940, Barnes and his wife Laura purchased an 18th-century estate in West Pikeland Township, Pennsylvania, and named it "Ker-Feal" (Breton for “House of Fidèle”) after their favorite dog. Barnes had brought the dog home from Brittany during an art-buying trip to France.[21]

In the late 1940s, Barnes met Horace Mann Bond, the first black president of Lincoln University, a historically black college in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania. They established a friendship that led to Barnes' inviting Lincoln students to the collection, he ensured by his will that officials of the university had a prominent role after his death in running his collection by giving the university several seats as trustees on the board of the Foundation.[citation needed]

Relationship with Bertrand Russell[edit]

In the 1940s, Barnes helped salvage the career and life of the distinguished British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell was living in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the summer of 1940, short of money and unable to earn an income from journalism or teaching. Barnes, who had been rebuffed by the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had been impressed by Russell's battles with the Establishment, he invited Russell to teach philosophy at his Foundation.

Russell invited Barnes to his cabin in Lake Tahoe for discussion, he secured a contract to teach for five years at an annual salary of $6,000, subsequently raised to $8,000, so Russell could give up his other teaching duties.[22] Russell was contracted to give one lecture a week on the history of Western philosophy, which later became the basis of his best-selling book History of Western Philosophy.

The two men later fell out after Barnes was offended by the behaviour of Russell's wife Patricia, who insisted on calling herself 'Lady Russell'.[23] Barnes wrote to Russell, saying "when we engaged you to teach we did not obligate ourselves to endure forever the trouble-making propensities of your wife",[24] and looked for excuses to dismiss him; in 1942, when Russell agreed to give weekly lectures at the Rand School of Social Science, Barnes dismissed him for breach of contract. He claimed that the additional $2,000 per year of his salary was conditional upon Russell's teaching exclusively at the Foundation.[25] Russell sued for loss of $24,000 (the amount owed for the remaining three years of the contract); in August 1943, he was awarded $20,000 — the amount owed less $4,000, which the court expected Russell to be able to earn from public lectures for the three-year period.


Barnes died on July 24, 1951, in an automobile crash.[11] Driving from Ker-Feal to Merion, he failed to stop at a stop sign and was hit broadside by a truck at an intersection on Phoenixville Pike in Malvern, he was killed instantly.[26]

The Barnes Foundation in recent decades[edit]

Decades after his death, the Barnes Foundation gradually expanded its hours and visitation, but was still limited in visitors.

When Barnes died, he left an endowment of $10 million to support the foundation, he directed that the endowment be invested solely in US government securities and only the income be used. By the early 1990s the endowment was still worth about $10 million which was, by then, woefully inadequate to support the foundation and maintain the museum and preserve the collection,[27] after a lengthy court battle in 1992, the Barnes Foundation received court approval to send 80 works on tour to generate funds. The paintings and other works attracted huge crowds in numerous cities.[12][28]

It also decided to accept offers from the City of Philadelphia and regional foundations to move into the city and allow greater public access, its new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway opened in 2012, after the Foundation survived court challenges to its decision.[27][29]

Today, the collection is estimated to be worth between $20 and $30 billion,[3] although John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were vastly wealthier than Albert Barnes, the current value of the assets of the Barnes Foundation are 10 to 20 times greater than the Carnegie Corporation or the Rockefeller Corporation.[3]


  1. ^ a b NY Times, May, 18, 2012, Albert C. Barnes
  2. ^ "An eccentric collector and democratizer of art", Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 2012
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k James Panero (July 1, 2011). "Outsmarting Albert Barnes". Philanthropy. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b "The Ogre of Merion". Time magazine. June 27, 1960. Retrieved March 19, 2010. He and a brilliant young German student, Hermann Hille. worked out the formula for Argyrol, a mild silver protein solution for which doctors had many uses—to treat gonorrhea, including gonorrheal blindness; relieve severe nasal congestion. ... In 1928, with superb timing, Barnes sold out Argyrol for an estimated $4,000,000, not long before the discovery of antibiotics, which largely replaced it. ... 
  5. ^ Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2017. 
  6. ^ a b c "Laura L. Barnes", Barnes Foundation, accessed 3 June 2012
  7. ^ Wattenmaker, American Painting and Works on Paper in The Barnes Foundation, 19.
  8. ^ Anne Distel (fr), "Le Docteur Barnes est a Paris", De Cezanne a Matisse, Chefs d'Oeuvres de la Fondation Barnes, (Paris, Musée d'Orsay, 1993, p.41)
  9. ^
  10. ^ Greenfield pp. 130–131
  11. ^ a b GlobalShift, "The Art of the Steal Paints an Ugly Picture [DVD Review]"; accessed 2010.08.17.
  12. ^ a b Michael Janofsky, "Fight Roils Museum and Wealthy Neighbors", New York Times, March 7, 1996, accessed February 2, 2009
  13. ^ Kramer, Hilton. "Reflections on Matisse," in The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985–2005, 2006, p.162, ISBN 0-15-666370-8
  14. ^ An eccentric collector and democratizer of art May 5, 2012,
  15. ^ Mark Jarzombek (1999), The Psychologizing of Modernity(Cambridge, U.K. Cambridge University Press, p. 135. ISBN 978-0-521-58238-4)
  16. ^ Jarzombek (1999) , Psychologizing of Modernity, p. 135
  17. ^ Albert C. Barnes, "Negro Art and America", Survey Graphic, March 1925, accessed March 19, 2010
  18. ^ a b Art and Education manuscripts, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  19. ^ The French Primitives and Their Forms manuscripts, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  20. ^ The Art of Henri-Matisse manuscripts, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  21. ^ Personalpedia, "Bertrand Russell & Albert Barnes"; accessed 2010.08.17.
  22. ^ Monk p. 248
  23. ^ Monk p. 261
  24. ^ Monk p. 262
  25. ^ Monk p. 263
  26. ^ Lucinda Fleeson "Opening the Barnes Door: How America's Most Paranoid Art Museum Got That Way and How, Under New Management, Dramatic Changes Are on the Way", The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine; reprinted In: Essays of an Information Scientist: Science Reviews, Journalism, Inventiveness and other Essays, Vol. 14, p. 58, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
  27. ^ a b "Opening Scheduled", The Washington Post, June 14, 2011, Style section
  28. ^
  29. ^ Jamie Johnson (March 2, 2010). "The Art of Stealing from the Rich and Dead". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on March 4, 2010. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Howard Greenfield, The Devil and Dr. Barnes, (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1987 ISBN 978-0-670-80650-8
  • Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell. The Ghost of Madness, London 2000, ISBN 978-0-7432-1215-1
  • William Schack, Art and Argyrol: The Life and Career of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, New York: T. Yoseloff, 1960 .
  • John Anderson, Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.
  • The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary about the transfer of the Barnes from Lower Merion to Philadelphia.