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The Medici of the New World

Albert C. Barnes

By Caroline Kim | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

In 1923, the collector Albert C. Barnes agreed to show some of his recent acquisitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There were paintings by Matisse and Derain, Soutine and Modigliani, Picasso, Utrillo, de Chirico and Laurencin, as well as sculptures by Lipchitz. It was the first time that most Philadelphians had seen or heard of French Impressionist art. The reaction was immediate and devastating.

"These pictures are most unpleasant to contemplate," said one critic. "It is debased art in which the attempt for a new form of expression results in the degradation of the old formulas, not in the creation of something new. . . . It is hard to see why the Academy should sponsor this sort of trash." Others questioned the mental states of the artists, calling them "morbid," "emotional," "diseased," and "degenerate."

Deeply angered, Barnes would never again present a public exhibition. Instead he housed his impressive private collection--one of the most extensive in America--in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, where entrance to the gallery was by invitation only. He also created an educational institution he called the Barnes Foundation.

People interested in seeing the collection had to seek written permission personally from Barnes. He could be generous or capricious with his response. Blue-collar workers were always welcome; elite members of the art world were usually not. T.S. Eliot, the architect Corbusier, and even the artist Lipchitz, who had fallen out of favor with Barnes, were turned away. However, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Salvador Dalí, and Carl Van Vechten were warmly welcomed and received personal tours.

The Barnes Foundation has recently undertaken a project to archive Barnes's manuscript material, including early records and histories of the foundation and its properties, drafts of Barnes's books, essays, speeches, and correspondence, and financial records documenting Barnes's collecting history. The archivist, Katy Rawdon-Faucett, says that the foundation hopes to make the archive available to scholars in 2006.

Barnes recognized that newness is not always readily appreciated. In the introduction to the catalog for his 1923 show, he had written, "To quarrel with them for being different from the great masters is about as rational as to find fault with the size of a person's shoes or the shape of his ears. If one will accord to these artists the simple justice of educated and unbiased attention, one will see the truth of what experienced students of painting all assert: that old art and new art are the same in fundamental principles. The difference lies only in the degree of greatness, and time alone can gauge that with accuracy."

The foundation he created favored experiential learning over rote memorization. During Barnes's lifetime, classes were free and students were encouraged to explore the many rooms of the gallery. Barnes's socially progressive ideas were evident in the foundation's bylaws, which specified his wishes for the gallery after his death and the death of his wife: "It will be incumbent upon the Board of Trustees to make such regulations as will ensure that it is the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places, who shall have free access to the art gallery upon those days when the gallery is to be open to the public."

Barnes's democratic principles may have come from his humble beginnings. Born in 1872 to a sometime butcher and letter carrier, he spent part of his childhood in one of the poorest sections of South Philadelphia, called The Neck. Barnes and his brother taught themselves to box as a means of protecting themselves. Keenly intelligent, he was encouraged by his mother to enroll in Central High School, a competitive public boys' school, from which he received his high school diploma and his bachelor's degree. Barnes went on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but soon realized that medical practice held little interest for him. He was interested in making money the American way--as an entrepreneur.

Barnes's chance came around the turn of the century, while he was working for H. K. Mulford and Company, a leading pharmaceutical manufacturer. He formed a partnership with Hermann Hille, a German chemist whom Barnes had recruited for Mulford and Company. Barnes had been thinking for some time about the possibility of creating a silver compound for use as an antiseptic. Silver nitrate solutions had been used in the past for infections, specifically as eye drops to prevent blindness in newborns, but these solutions often had a caustic effect, damaging living tissues. Barnes set Hille the task of finding a harmless substitute for silver nitrate; within a year Argyrol was born.

Argyrol was cheap and relatively easy to manufacture. Hille worked the production end of the operation while Barnes put his prodigious sales experience to work marketing the product. The business was an enormous success. Within a few years, Argyrol was used around the globe. In America, many states even passed laws requiring that Argyrol be used on newborn infants. It is, in fact, still used today. However, while the business flourished, relations between Barnes and Hille soured. In 1907 the Court of Common Pleas decreed that the business should be dissolved and each partner given the right to bid for it. In the end, Barnes was willing to go higher than Hille, who walked away with $350,000.

Now that Barnes was a rich man, he turned his attention to his real interests--education and art. Barnes encouraged his employees to understand themselves and to reach their full potential. From 12:30 until 2:30 p.m. each day at the A.C. Barnes Company, the nine employees assembled for class. Though they were for the most part uneducated, they read and discussed the works of William James, George Santayana, and John Dewey. Together they struggled through The Principles of Psychology, Pragmatism, The Varieties of Religious Experience, How We Think, The Sense of Beauty, and Reason in Art. When they discussed aesthetics, they studied the artwork that Barnes had begun collecting and hanging in the factory.

"Barnes read everything," says George Hein, professor emeritus of education at Lesley University and a member of the curatorial advisory committee at the Barnes Foundation. "Barnes was an extraordinary intellectual. He read economics; he read fiction; he read philosophy."

One of the philosophers who had a great influence on Barnes was John Dewey, whose educational theories emphasized experiential learning. He was so impressed by Dewey that he enrolled in his seminar at Columbia in 1917. From this meeting, they developed a close friendship.

"They were collaborating," says Rawdon-Faucett. "Barnes got his educational theories from Dewey, while Dewey had never really thought or written about art until he met Barnes--and then he ended up writing an entire book about art and education. It was cooperative. They worked together."

By the time Barnes met Dewey, he was already an avid collector. At first he sought help from his friend, the American artist William Glackens, who brought him to the few galleries in New York and Philadelphia that showed the work of modern European artists. In 1912 Barnes sent Glackens to Paris with twenty thousand dollars. During an exhausting two weeks, Glackens spent hours each day at galleries and with dealers, judging and pricing paintings. At the end of his trip, he wrote to his wife that he was "sick of looking at pictures and asking prices." While it is not known exactly which pieces Glackens bought for Barnes, they are thought to include works by Renoir, van Gogh, Manet, Gaugin, Cézanne, and Degas.

At first Barnes was disappointed with Glackens's purchases. He found them incomprehensible. Glackens advised him to live with the paintings for a while and offered to buy them back from Barnes if after a time he still did not care for them. Barnes studied his new paintings carefully. Using the analytical skills of a scientist, he gradually came to understand what the painters were doing and why, and became an enthusiast. From this point forward, he also became a completely independent collector-- buying only what interested him.

"He felt very strongly that you have to learn to see," says Hein. "You have to learn to understand the properties of the painting."

He would study the "color, light, space, mass," says William Wixom, curator emeritus at The Cloisters, and a former student whom Barnes hired to teach at the foundation. "He would try to see what the interrelationships are and to what end, to what purpose. And what is the expressive and decorative purpose of the whole thing. To try to understand the various parts and aspects of it and how they build up to make a unified whole."

For example, in contrast to the critic who said that the heads of Modigliani's figures had "an oddly flattened shape, as if some frightful pressure had been applied to the skull," commenting that such compression "seems to have had its effect upon the intelligence of his subjects," Barnes saw a link to the art of a different time and culture. "If the long, attenuated necks of the Modigliani figures seem absurd or grotesque," he wrote, "go to the University Museum and look at the even longer necks on the pieces of ancient African sculpture, so rich in art values. Then you will see that Modigliani's inspiration came from his devotion to the spirit of Negro art and that that experience did something to him and he did something to it by his imagination and reason."

To teach students to see, Barnes created "ensembles"--wall installations that "combine and contrast the formal elements of art moving between aesthetic tradition and contemporary interpretation," according to Kimberly Camp, executive director of the Barnes Foundation. For example, Cézanne's The Bathers might be looked at "in the context of looking at a work by Renoir, and maybe the work of Tintoretto and Giorgioni, and maybe a Pennsylvania German blanket chest, and maybe Han Dynasty Chinese vases--the idea being to begin to look at and understand the aesthetics that are inherent within each piece of work."

"The installations are extraordinary and make you think," says Wixom, "because he mixes things up. It's not like an ordinary, traditional museum where it's chronological. His philosophy was very much in tune with what John Dewey was saying. And that is that people should be trying to understand what the painters were trying to do with their paintings in terms of composition, and the relationships of the various elements. And trying to create in the spectator an experience which was comparable or parallel to the experience of the painter when he was painting."

Matisse was an enthusiastic admirer of Barnes's installations. "One of the most striking things in America is the Barnes collection," he said, "which is exhibited in a spirit very beneficial for the formation of American artists. There the old masters' paintings are put beside the modern ones, a Douanier Rousseau next to a primitive, and this bringing together helps students understand a lot of things that the academies don't teach. . . . The Barnes Foundation will doubtless manage to destroy the artificial and disreputable presentation of the other collections, where the pictures are hard to see--displayed hypocritically in the mysterious light of a temple or cathedral."

In a relatively short period of time between the two world wars, Barnes had acquired an impressive number of Impressionist works: 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 21 Soutines, and 18 Rousseaus, as well as a number of works by Modigliani, Degas, van Gogh, Seurat, and Monet. In 1923, the dealer Paul Guillaume called Barnes "the Medici of the New World," and wrote about his single-minded purpose in Les Arts â Paris: "Dr. Barnes has just left Paris. He has spent three weeks here, each hour devoted not to social calls, soirŽes, or official receptions, but rather as this extraordinary, democratic, ardent, inexhaustible, unbeatable, charming, impulsive, generous, unique man must. He has visited everything, seen everything shown by dealers, artists, patrons of art; he has bought, refused to buy, admired, criticized; he has pleased, displeased, made friends, and made enemies. The gold-bearing jingle of money preceded his steps."

Barnes believed that studying art had an important social component. "Barnes felt that by learning to look at art critically and learning it from your perspective, you would be able to improve your own mind," says Rawdon-Faucett. "So it wasn't just that you were learning dates and numbers and names but that you were learning how to see paintings, how to see art, and also learning how to think for yourself. It was really a social improvement methodology."

As teaching became more of a primary focus for Barnes, his collecting habits changed. He began to buy old masters--El Greco, Rubens, Titian, and Hals--to show his students the traditions of art. He bought African and Asian art, Southwestern American paintings and pottery, and early American furniture and textiles. He had amassed nine thousand pieces of artwork by the time of his death in 1951.

"This is the first purposely multicultural collection in the country," says Camp. "Barnes was among the first collectors of African art in the United States. He was one of the first collectors of Asian art, particularly Han dynasty and Tang dynasty pieces. Barnes was looking at aesthetic elements. So it was not an issue of building the collection from a position of connoisseurship in the traditional sense."

Since Barnes's death in 1951, the foundation has faced many difficulties, most of them financial. In addition to stipulating that none of his paintings can be moved, loaned, or sold, Barnes also decreed that the endowment be invested only in government securities. During the runaway inflation of the 1970s, the value of the endowment sank considerably. During the 1990s, the foundation was mired in a series of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits initiated by its board members, former students, and neighbors, further depleting the endowment.

Recently, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations have offered to help the Barnes Foundation raise $150 million to construct a new building and create an endowment. Whether this will benefit the foundation is the subject of heated debate in the Philadelphia art world. The Barnes Foundation has petitioned the Montgomery County Orphans' Court to allow it to move the gallery intact from Lower Merion to Center City Philadelphia. This would allow substantially more visitors--an increase from 62,000 to 200,000 per year--and the foundation would still remain primarily an educational institution and not a museum.

Although it may seem contradictory to his ideals of democratic education, Barnes always rejected the idea of turning his gallery into a museum. "The foundation's approach takes art out of its usually detached world and links it up with life itself," he said. "Art appreciation can no more be absorbed by aimless wandering in galleries than can surgery be learned by casual visits to a hospital."

Despite the uncertainty, Camp is optimistic. "I think the future looks very bright. I think we have a great opportunity to be able to continue to achieve Barnes's vision and mission regardless of what happens to it or with it. If the move is approved by the judge by the end of the year, I think it will only make it better. We'll be accessible to so many more people, to achieve the educational vision of Barnes. He always said that this was an experiment in education. It was never meant to be staid or set in stone."

About the Author

Caroline Kim is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Funding Information

The Barnes Foundation has received $95,397 in NEH support for the preservation and cataloging of the institution's archives.