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Albert C. Barnes

Albert C. Barnes
Albert C. Barnes in 1940
Born Albert Coombs Barnes
(1872-01-02)January 2, 1872
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died July 24, 1951(1951-07-24) (aged 79)
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
Cause of death Traffic collision
Residence Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania
Alma mater University of Pennsylvania
Known for chemist, businessman, and 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 1
  • Career 2
  • Marriage and family 3
  • Art collecting 4
  • The Barnes Foundation 5
    • Operations 5.1
  • Relationship with art world 6
  • Publications 7
  • Later years 8
    • Relationship with Bertrand Russell 8.1
  • Death 9
  • The Barnes Foundation in recent decades 10
  • Notes 11
  • Further reading 12

Early life and education

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 ($6,814,423 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

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

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.

From about 1910, when he was in his late 30s, 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 1911, Barnes gave Glackens $20,000 to buy paintings for him in Paris.[3] Glackens returned with the 20 paintings that formed the core of Barnes' collection.[7]

In 1912, during a stay in Paris, Barnes was invited to the home of 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."

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. Biographer John Anderson wrote that the most Barnes ever paid for a painting was $100,000.[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[8] Edgar Degas, and Vincent van Gogh.

The Barnes Foundation

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. Requiring people to write for appointments, he gave preference to students over members of Philadelphia society.


Barnes limited access to the collection, and 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.[9] In another, Barnes turned down the poet T.S. Eliot's request with a one-word answer: "Nuts."[3]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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."[12]

Relationship with art world

Barnes was known as an eccentric art collector,[1][13] in part for his antagonism to the discipline of art history, which he said "stifles both self-expression and appreciation of art."[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17]

  • 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.[18]
  • The Art of Renoir (1935), with De Mazia.
  • The Art of Henri-Matisse (1933), with De Mazia.[19]
  • 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.) [17]
Giorgio de Chirico, Portrait of Albert C. Barnes, 1926

Later years

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.[20]

In the late 1940s, Barnes met Horace Mann Bond, the first black president of Lincoln University, a historically black college in central 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.

Relationship with Bertrand Russell

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.[21] 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'.[22] 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",[23] 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.[24] 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.[10] 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, PA. He was killed instantly.[25]

The Barnes Foundation in recent decades

Decades after his death, the Barnes Foundation gradually expanded its hours and visitation, but was still limited in visitors, and struggled financially to maintain the museum and preserve the collection.[26] 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.[11][27]

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.[26][28]

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 Albert C. BarnesNY Times, May, 18, 2012,
  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 l m
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  6. ^ a b c "Laura L. Barnes", Barnes Foundation, accessed 3 June 2012
  7. ^ A.L. Chanin, "Opening Of a Secret Art Treasure Chest", New York Times, March 26, 1961
  8. ^
  9. ^ Greenfield pp. 130–131
  10. ^ a b GlobalShift, "The Art of the Steal Paints an Ugly Picture [DVD Review]"; accessed 2010.08.17.
  11. ^ a b Michael Janofsky, "Fight Roils Museum and Wealthy Neighbors", New York Times, March 7, 1996, accessed February 2, 2009
  12. ^ Kramer, Hilton. "Reflections on Matisse," in The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985–2005, 2006, p.162, ISBN 0-15-666370-8
  13. ^ May 5, 2012, Philly.comAn eccentric collector and democratizer of art
  14. ^ Mark Jarzombek (1999), The Psychologizing of Modernity(Cambridge, U.K. Cambridge University Press, p. 135. ISBN 978-0-521-58238-4)
  15. ^ Jarzombek (1999) , Psychologizing of Modernity, p. 135
  16. ^ Albert C. Barnes, "Negro Art and America", Survey Graphic, March 1925, accessed March 19, 2010
  17. ^ a b manuscriptsArt and Education, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  18. ^ manuscriptsThe French Primitives and Their Forms, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  19. ^ manuscriptsThe Art of Henri-Matisse, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  20. ^ Personalpedia, "Bertrand Russell & Albert Barnes"; accessed 2010.08.17.
  21. ^ Monk p. 248
  22. ^ Monk p. 261
  23. ^ Monk p. 262
  24. ^ Monk p. 263
  25. ^ 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
  26. ^ a b "Opening Scheduled", The Washington Post, June 14, 2011, Style section
  27. ^
  28. ^

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary about the transfer of the Barnes from Lower Merion to Philadelphia.
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