Biography of Albert C. Barnes
Childhood and Education
Albert Coombs Barnes was the third of four sons born to parents Lydia and John Barnes. His father was a postal worker who had had a career as a butcher before losing an arm in the American Civil War. His childhood can best be described as difficult. Raised in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, and bullied at school, he also suffered the loss of two siblings. Despite (or probably because of) these setbacks, Barnes developed a steely determination and self-belief that saw him excel in his school studies.
Lydia Barnes had a profound impact on her son's life including sparking his interest in African American culture. According to writer Dr. Sylvia Karasu, "one of the most significant - even 'religious' - experiences of his life occurred when he first heard black spirituals sung at a camp meeting to which his mother had taken him as a young child". Lydia saw the value in culture and saw to it that her son was taught art and music from an early age. These interests stayed with him through high school where Barnes made friends with classmate, and future artist, William Glackens. Of their relationship, Barnes later stated, "we became close friends, partly through my interest in his drawing [...] and because we had the same interest in sports".
In 1889 Barnes enrolled in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania which he helped pay for with a series of part-time jobs. Having graduated, he realized that it was the research side of medicine that he was most interested in and headed for Europe where he studied chemistry at the University of Berlin.
On his return to Philadelphia in 1896, Barnes began working at the pharmaceutical firm, H. K. Mulford Company in their advertising and sales division. He convinced the company to hire a brilliant young chemist, Hermann Hille, whom he had recently met in Germany. With Hille, Barnes began testing compounds which led to the discovery of a cheap-to-produce silver nitrate solution that was successful in treating blindness in babies born to mothers with venereal disease. They named their product, Argyrol. Using his advertising and sales acumen, Barned devised an aggressive and successful advertising strategy that encouraged the pair to start their own company, Barnes & Hille. In the summer of 1900, Barnes met Laura Leggett and the couple were married six months later. This happy period in his life coincided with successful sales of Argyrol (including to the French Army which used it to treat venereal disease amongst its troops) making Barnes an extremely wealthy man. As a public symbol of his elevation in society, he built a mansion in Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1905 which he named Lauraston to honor his wife.
Although sales for Argyrol remained impressively strong, the relationship between Barnes and Hille was badly deteriorating. It was the start of a pattern with Barnes in which many of his friendships and working partnerships began strongly but ended in acrimony. In May 1907, Barnes brought an action against Hille and a year later a judge ordered that the partnership be resolved with the top bidder taking control of the company. Barnes won and renamed the company the A.C. Barnes Company. As sole owner, Barnes implemented what was a revolutionary employment policy mandating a six hour workday with an optional two hours of educational classes and programs intended to enrich the lives of his workforce. As the historian Philip McCouat writes, Barnes "was an early and active supporter of disadvantaged groups, including Afro-Americans, provided generous employee conditions and benefits for his workforce (which he ensured were mixed-sex and racially integrated), and had a great and genuine commitment to worker education".
Having accumulated such great wealth, Barnes turned his focus to one of his earliest passions, art. According to author Howard Greenfeld, "[Barnes] knew he could never be a successful painter (he reached this conclusion, he remembered later, after having completed 190 canvases), so he decided to do the next best thing - collect the works of other painters. 'I collected my own pictures when I didn't have money,' he wrote, 'and when I had money I collected better ones'". In 1910 Barnes handed American Ashcan School painter Alfred Henry Maurer, and his former classmate Glackens, himself a reasonably accomplished painter, $20,000 to buy paintings in Paris. They returned with over twenty works by artists including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, most of which were bought from the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Barnes was so grateful for this early support that when the next year Glackens had to have surgery, Barnes returned to the role of doctor to oversee his friend's operation.
Barnes soon began making art purchases on his own working directly with Parisian dealers; most notably Paul Durand-Ruel and Paul Guillaume. During his numerous trips to Europe, Barnes made other important connections too, including the Stein siblings (Gertrude and Leo) from whom he bought his first two Matisse paintings and an early Picasso (which, according to McCouat, "cost him only a pittance") in 1913. Barnes and Gertrude Stein (both notoriously "strong personalities") did not bond but he formed a good working friendship with Leo. Indeed, Barnes later commented, "it is safe to say that my talks with [Leo Stein] in the early days were the most important factor in determining my activities in the art world".
Once Barnes set his mind to becoming an art collector it became an all-consuming pursuit. As author John Anderson noted, "the years 1922-1923 would arguably be the most important of Barnes's whole career as a collector. During that period alone, he made more than one hundred purchases". It was while touring Europe that Barnes developed a special interest in Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and African art. He was an early collector, too, of artists including Jacques Lipchitz, Amadeo Modigliani, and Chaim Soutine. In addition to his European and African pieces, he collected works by American artists including Glackens and other associated with The Ashcan School such as Maurice Prendergast and John Sloan. While Barnes is credited with purchasing his first painting, Sloan also provides a good example of the often difficult relationship that developed between collector and artist. As Greenfeld explains "[Sloan] was very unhappy that Barnes had such a possessive attitude about his collection. Sloan felt that a true collector should feel like a 'custodian' of works of art". Barnes saw things differently, however, believing that having purchased a work he became its rightful owner.
Having amassed such an impressive collection, the next logical step for Barnes was to create a suitable space to house the works. As he said, "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". In 1922 Barnes purchased a 12-acre plot in Merion (suburb of Philadephia) where, having been granted a charter by the Pennsylvanian civic authorities, he established the Barnes Foundation. As the Foundation's homepage describes it, "the unique approach to teaching - now known as the Barnes Method - emphasized close looking, critical thinking, and prolonged engagement with original works of art. Dr. Barnes worked closely with his colleague Violette de Mazia to shape the program".
Barnes's ambitions were however checked by strict bylaws which included the number of staff he could employ, the two days per week it was allowed be open to the public, the number of trustees (five) which included Barnes and which gave him ultimate governing control. It was also mandated that the Barnes Foundation function as an educational institution rather than a museum. Finally, the organization's physical structure, for which he hired Paul Philippe Cret as architect, housed the art collection and educational classes together in a limestone building that adjoined the palatial Barnes residence, Lauraston.
The Barnes Foundation opened on March 19, 1925. With Barnes's friend, the philosopher John Dewey, as Director of Education, the Foundation was quickly able to offer a regular schedule of exhibitions and education classes. In addition to overseeing the operations of the Foundation and taking an active role in how works were displayed, Barnes spent a large portion of his time writing and publishing works including The Art in Painting (1925) (and later, The French Primitives and Their Forms: From Their Origin to the End of the Fifteenth Century (1931), and books on the art of Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne, in 1933, 1935, and 1939 respectively). Another book, published through the Foundation, Guillaume and Thomas Munro's, Primitive Negro Sculpture (1926), offered evidence of Barnes's interest in African culture and which was further confirmed through his support for African American artists.
As the Barnes Foundation homepage explains, By the time the Foundation was up-and-running, Barnes had become actively involved in the New Negro Movement - better known today as the Harlem Renaissance - and had joined with the philosopher Alain Locke and activist and scholar Charles S. Johnson "to promote awareness of the artistic value of African art". Indeed, Johnson wrote to Barnes in 1927 to express on behalf of the African American community his gratitude for all the Foundation's work: "I can think of no one who has been more consistent in urging this self-realization [of African Americans] than you. And to remove this from what might possibly be interpreted as merely a gracious remark, I point to that first discovery for America of the vital power of African art, and its preservation to the synthesis of Negro artistic expression in the plastic arts, music and poetry, which has been projected from the Foundation [...] I refer to these because they are very real and vital contributions to a cause, and that you may know at least that they are recognized".
Barnes wanted the majority of the visitors to the Foundation to be students who were enrolled in classes. But this policy resulted in a situation where the general public, critics and important public figures were denied admittance. This caused many tensions and when some of his pieces were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Barnes was enraged by their poor reception and dispatched strongly worded personal letters to the critics who dared to pick fault with them. As Greenfeld explains, Barnes "had been hurt and stunned by the ignorance and insensitivity of the men and women who called themselves art critics, and he never forgave them. For the rest of his life, he closed his gallery to most of these so-called experts".
McCouat offered the following overview of Barnes's combative and eccentric personality: "Over time, his growing list of enemies included journalists, art critics, dealers, other collectors, other millionaires, conservative academics and museum officials. The directness of his attacks on his opponents was notorious [...] In return, Barnes himself was regarded by his enemies as one of the more offensive men in public life". McCouat added that "Officially, access was limited to students at the Foundation, but Barnes exercised his discretion - in a characteristically eccentric way - to admit others. So, for example, he would welcome visitors like Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann or the actor Charles Laughton, but would refuse admission to other notables on the deliberately facetious basis that he was too busy trying to 'break the world's record for goldfish-swallowing', or that he was 'out on the lawn singing to the birds' [...] TS Eliot received the one-word rejection, 'Nuts'; Le Corbusier fared even worse, with 'Merde' ['shit']. Sometimes Barnes signed rejections in the name of his fictional secretary, or even his dog Fidèle-de-Port-Manech who, Barnes claimed, could understand only French".
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a devastating effect on many businesses but for Barnes the Crash rather worked out in his favor. He had sold the rights to Argyrol just months prior and had great buying power with so many collectors in financial distress. McCouat adds that the timing of his sale of Argyrol was "remarkably providential in another way, as it came shortly before the invention of antibiotics, which ultimately wiped out a large part of Argyrol's market".
As Barnes continued, despite the bleak financial climate, to grow his collection, his Foundation helped to maintain relationships with several artists including Jacques Lipchitz, who designed reliefs for the exterior of the building, and Henri Matisse who visited Merion in 1930 and agreed to design a large mural for the Foundation. Matisse was given a free reign in his choice of subject and chose to return to his signature theme of dancing figures. As McCouat states Matisse "was to use this theme to produce a work that straddled painting and architecture. It would be the biggest painting that Matisse had ever undertaken, and would be his first picture of figures in motion for more than twenty years".
By the mid-thirties the Foundation had welcomed other important visitors including the painter Giorgio de Chirico and the dealer Ambroise Vollard (the man who "discovered" Cézanne). According to Greenfeld, on his visit Vollard fell down a flight of stairs to which Barnes replied, "ah, Vollard [....] If you had been killed, I would have buried you in the middle of the Foundation". The fact that both men were highly amused by the incident underlined the good relations between two giants of international art dealership.
There were two major organizations which Barnes battled with throughout his career. He fell into dispute with the Pennsylvania Museum of Art (PMA) in 1937 when an article was published praising its recently acquired painting of Cézanne's bathers which it compared unfavorably to a slightly smaller Cézanne piece held at the Foundation. According to Greenfeld, "Barnes saw the announcement as an attempt to minimize the importance of his own painting" and so retaliated with a written attack on the museum. Barnes certainly knew how to harbor a grudge. As Greenfeld explains, when Barnes found himself on a ship travelling to Europe with Joseph E. Widener, the millionaire who had acquired the (bigger) Cézanne for the PMA, and the pair were assigned adjoining seats on deck, both men were "[too] proud to request different chairs [and] also too proud to exchange a single word during the whole crossing".
In 1940, Barnes made the acquaintance of the radical English philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Russell was a "progressive" who had espoused strong opinions on (amongst other things) religion and sexual morality. Russell had arrived in America hoping to start a career as an academic taking up posts first at the University of Chicago and University College Los Angeles before arriving at the College of the City of New York. Russell's appointment in New York caused an outcry set in motion by the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Dr William Manning who attacked Russell as a "decadent defender of adultery" (adultery was still illegal in NYC at that time). A vicious public backlash followed. Although Russell garnered the support of Civil Liberties groups, and even intellectuals such as Albert Einstein, his appointment was revoked by a judge and a 68 year old Russell was left unemployed.
Having got wind of the Russell affair, Barnes invited the Englishman to join the Foundation as a philosophy lecturer. It was a very lucrative offer of one lecture per-week over five years. According to Russell's biographer, Ray Monk, Barnes saw Russell as something of a kindred spirit whereas Russell, whose lectures were a roaring success with students, "did not particularly want Barnes to be his friend or even his colleague" and saw his relationship with Barnes rather as "an opportunity to realise the kind of quiet, financially secure, contemplative life that was required to pursue serious work. He did not want to fight Barnes' battles, nor did he want Barnes to fight his; he wanted only to work in peace in the countryside, undisturbed by the demands of working journalism or engaging in polemics". The relationship between the two men reached its nadir when Russell accepted an invitation to deliver a series of lectures at the Rand School of Social Science (Barnes was already upset by Russell's wife who he had barred from entering the Foundation on learning that she had been seen knitting while attending her husband's lectures). There ensued an exchange of letters which was picked up on by the Saturday Evening Post. Once their spat was made public, an enraged Barnes dismissed Russell with just three days' notice. The Englishman sued his erstwhile employer for unfair dismissal, winning full payment for the three years remaining on his contract.
In 1947, and in his now customary belligerent manner, Barnes reignited a feud with the University of Pennsylvania which dated back as far as 1924 and a failed attempt to develop a collaborative educational program with the Foundation. In 1947, Barnes tried to develop a relationship with his alma mater's new president, Harold Stassen, and to initiate new programs at the university. When these efforts failed, Barnes permanently broke ties with the University and in 1950 used the law courts to change the Foundation's bylaws to ensure the University would have no involvement with his collection after his death. Barnes instead selected Pennsylvania's Lincoln University, a well-respected black college, to take control over nominating trustees to his Foundation following his death.
On July 24, 1951, en-route from his second home in Chester Springs to his first at Merion, Barnes failed to brake at a stop sign and his car was struck by a truck. He was thrown from his vehicle and died instantly.
Controversies over the exquisite art collection raged long after Barnes died. One involved a legal battle in 1993 which resulted in a ruling that allowed his works to go on tour, a decision that went against Barnes's express wish as laid out in his will. Furthermore, a proposal was put forward to relocate Foundation's collection to a larger building in Philadelphia. This too went against the original Foundation mission (of being a place of education rather than a commercial venue) which strictly forbid the movement of any works in the Barnes collection. Ultimately, after a multi-year legal battle, the move succeeded and the new Foundation building opened to the public in 2012.
The Legacy of Albert C. Barnes
McCouat writes: "On his death, Barnes was described as the American art world's 'most bizarre and colourful personality', as a man with a 'talent for invective' who placed a 'paralysing terror' on 'the entire American art world of his generation', and who left behind him 'more ill-will than any other single figure in American art'". Whatever one's personal feelings about "Barnes the man", no one can deny he created one of the twentieth century's greatest modern art collections. He was, according to a 1928 article in The New Yorker, the "De Medici in Merion" and helped further the international reputations of greats including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His preference (once he liked an artist) was to collect many of their works, a policy that saw him also play a key role in establishing the names of up-and-coming artists including Giorgio de Chirico, Jacques Lipchitz and Chaim Soutine. In the same vein, his interest in African American culture and early African art secured it a wider audience amongst the American public while the Barnes Foundation was able to count Horace Pippin as one of its greatest alumni.
Today, Barnes's educational mission reaches 12,000 Philadelphia schoolchildren every year and promotes a variety of special exhibitions, community classes and programs for adult learners all of which uphold Barnes's commitment to arts education and inclusivity. Barnes once stated, "I am trying to do the biggest thing for Philadelphia that any one man has ever attempted", but he was not the only person to recognize the scale of his efforts. Matisse proved magnanimous enough to put aside his personal grievances against Barnes when he said, "one of the most striking things in America is the Barnes collection, which is exhibited in a spirit very beneficial for the formation of American artists. There the old master paintings are put beside the modern ones, a Douanier Rousseau next to a Primitive, and this bringing together helps students understand a lot of the things the academies don't teach".
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
First published on 24 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly