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Albert C. Barnes

American Doctor and Art Collector, Educator, and Writer

Born: January 2, 1872 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: July 24, 1951 - Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
"Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most very nice people."
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Albert C. Barnes
"My collection of pictures got beyond me. People wanted to come to see it from all over the world. And the teachers of art, and the painters, wanted to bring their classes there."
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Albert C. Barnes
"The conceptions of the artist, in a word, are verified in the same manner as those of the scientist - by experiment, by the production of objective facts which vindicate their standing in the real world."
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Albert C. Barnes
"What we are trying to do at the Foundation has never been attempted before - that is, to link an objective study of pictures to the powers possessed by every normal human being and to do it with the aid of respectable educational methods."
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Albert C. Barnes
"That is one of the joys of a collection, the elasticity with which paintings stretch to the beholder's personal vision which they progressively develop."
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Albert C. Barnes
"I collected my own pictures when I didn't have money and when I had money I collected better ones."
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Albert C. Barnes

Summary of Albert C. Barnes

Having amassed a vast fortune through his pharmaceutical company, Barnes became a philanthropic art collector who built the world famous Barnes Foundation. The Foundation, which houses one of the most impressive collections of modern art in the United States, came with a charter to promote "the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts" for all sections of American society. Barnes brought together many of the world's greatest masterpieces including works by European titans such as Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. Notwithstanding a richly-deserved reputation as a fractious and obstinate individual, Barnes was a strong advocate of progressive education and social equality and worked closely with African American communities, championing indigenous African art and doing much to launch the career of the African American artist, Horace Pippin. The Barnes Foundation currently displays paintings and sculptures alongside African masks, native American jewellery, Greek antiquities, and pieces of decorative metalwork.

Accomplishments

  • The Barnes Foundation was a triumph of art and philanthropy. Whatever his shortcomings as a rounded individual, his commitment to the betterment of public life was indisputable. He conceived of his Foundation as a means of demystifying fine art and his great success was to break down the elitist attitudes that dogged art education and appreciation. His Foundation's abiding contribution to the life of Philadelphians proved to be a gift to the cultural life all Americans.
  • Having commissioned Matisse to provide the centrepiece for the Foundation's vast main gallery, Barnes can take credit for reinvigorating the Frenchman's flagging career. Though the sheer scale of The Dance proved to be a truly gruelling undertaking for the artist (not helped by the cantankerous behaviour of Barnes) it saw Matisse return to the emphasis on forms and color that distinguished his early career. In terms of his artistic development, the large dance-like cut-outs, formed around arched architectural backgrounds, would dictate Matisse's later work.
  • Barnes had long held an interest in African art and African American culture. Having attended a solo exhibition of an unknown Horace Pippin in Philadelphia in 1940, Barnes bought several pieces for his collection and extended an invitation to Pippin to enrol at the Foundation as a student. Barnes became Pippin's greatest champion and even wrote an essay on the artist in lieu of his second solo exhibition in 1941.
  • While Barnes is better known perhaps for his promotion of European art, this was not to the neglect of modern American artists. Indeed, in addition to his support for Pippin, he did much to raise the profile of homegrown artists, some of whom were associated with the New York Ashcan School. He formed lasting (if typically bumpy) friendships with American artists such as William Glackens, Alfred Henry Maurer, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan and Charles Demuth.

Biography of Albert C. Barnes

Photograph of Albert Barnes taken on February 4, 1940.

Barnes was an uncompromising figure, "What we are trying to do at the Foundation has never been attempted before", was his claim. His goal was to reveal art; to, in his words, "link an objective study of pictures to the powers possessed by every normal human being and to do it with the aid of respectable educational methods".

Albert C. Barnes and Important Artists and Artworks

The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin) (1889)

Artist: Vincent van Gogh

The sitter for this portrait is Vincent van Gogh's friend, a stoic mail carrier named Joseph-Étienne Roulin who the artist met while living in the French town of Arles. This, one of six portraits van Gogh made of Roulin, features the subject staring directly out at the viewer with his long curly brown beard cascading over the front of his gold buttoned jacket. He stands in sharp contrast to the green wallpaper with large pink flowers that form the backdrop. According to art historian Martha Lucy, Roulin's uniform, complete with cap, describes "not only a sitter's occupation but also perhaps his political leanings; as an ardent socialist, he would have worn his worker identity proudly. Moreover, the uniform announces that portraiture is no longer reserved for the upper classes". This work is an important example of the value the artist placed on his friends by including them often in his paintings. As the Barnes Foundation website states, "the two [men] shared similar left-leaning political views and became close friends; in fact it was Roulin who cared for Van Gogh during his hospital stay in nearby Saint-Rémy".

As a strong admirer of Post-Impressionism, van Gogh was highly revered by Barnes. This painting is one of the thirty-three paintings which made up his first collection. They were purchased by artists Alfred Henry Maurer and William Glackens at the behest of Barnes during a European buying trip in February 1910. Thereafter, Barnes made all his own future purchases, but he was grateful to his buyers, and especially, Glackens for his astute selections. Indeed, these pieces would lay the foundations for what was destined to become America's finest collections of late-eighteenth and early twentieth century European modernism.

Young Woman Holding a Cigarette (1901)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

In this portrait, Picasso has depicted a young woman seated in a chair. Looking out at the viewer with an absent gaze, she cradles her left arm at the elbow while holding a cigarette between two long fingers. Compositionally balanced, her dark blue blouse matches the blue picture on the wall diagonally across from her; while the orange of her skirt matches her hair which she has swept up in a large bun. An important work in Picasso's career, it marked his transition to his Blue Period. According to art historian Judith Dolkart, Picasso was newly inspired after his first trip to Paris in 1900 where, having "heartily plunged into the city's renowned and debauched nightlife [he] immediately began to paint colorful images of dance halls and demimondaines. She adds that Picasso now "began to make such subjects distinctively his own as he incorporated the cerulean tonalities and melancholy mood of his ascendant Blue Period".

This work was the first Picasso Barnes owned. Purchased on his behalf by his friends Maurer and Glackens on a European buying trip in 1910, it became, according to Dolkart, "a foundational object in the collection". For his part, Barnes traveled to Paris for the first time in 1912. He met fellow American collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein and through them he was introduced to Picasso and the dealer, Paul Guillaume (who would become Barnes's main European supplier after World War I). He also purchased seven works by Picasso from the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, including Picasso's Head of a Man and Head of a Woman (both 1907). But while Barnes would purchase many more Picassos in his lifetime, the majority were drawn from his early years since Barnes was not fond of the Cubist movement. Indeed he wrote an article in 1916, titled "Cubism: Requiescat in Pace" in which he stated that Cubism was "academic, repetitive, and dead" and dismissed it as "a typical commercial venture". As author Howard Greenfeld put it, "Cubism did not meet the aesthetic principles [Barnes] had formulated, and he was unable to understand it". Barnes he did, however, judge works on their individual merits and acquired selective Cubist pieces including Jacques Lipchitz's, sculpture, Bather (1917).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Bathing Group (Les Baigneuses) (1916)

Bathing Group (Les Baigneuses) (1916)

Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir's painting features a group of women, in various stages of undress, relaxing and frolicking around a patch of blue water. Like the figures themselves, the cloud-filled sky and green-leafed trees are painted in the loose brushstrokes and a vibrant color palette that was characteristic of the artist's work. This work is an important piece in Renoir's oeuvre. Painted late in his career, Bathing Group shows the maturity of Renoir's approach to painting female nudes in motion. As art historian Martha Lucy explains, "what Barnes and other critics admired about Renoir's late production was the premium placed on design. A work such as Bathing Group was sensual but not lacking in control: compositionally, all parts added up to a unified whole".

Renoir was one of Barnes's favorite artists and over his many decades of collecting he purchased nearly two hundred works by the artist. He once stated, "I am convinced I cannot get too many Renoirs". According to Lucy, "when asked in a 1924 letter to name his favorite work by Renoir [...] Barnes landed firmly on this painting. 'My large canvas, 'Es Baigneuses' [Bathing Group] represents the summation of [Renoir's] powers,' he wrote. Unlike other collectors of the time, who generally favored Renoir's impressionist pictures, Barnes considered the artist's later work the pinnacle of his career".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Albert C. Barnes
Albert C. Barnes
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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Albert C. Barnes Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 24 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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