Albert C. Barnes

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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]

Early life and education[edit]

Albert Barnes was born in Philadelphia to working-class parents. His father, John J. Barnes, served in the Civil War, and afterward became a mail carrier. His mother, Lydia A. Schaffer, was a devout Methodist who took him to African American camp meetings and revivals.[1]

Albert Barnes enrolled at Central High School in 1885, he graduated as part of the 92nd class.[2] There he became friends with William Glackens, who later became an artist and advised him on his first collecting efforts. Barnes went on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, earning his way by tutoring, boxing, and playing semi-professional baseball.[3] By age 20, he was a medical doctor.[4] He went into research as a chemist rather than clinical practice.[4]


In 1899, with a German chemist named Hermann Hille (1871-1962), they created Argyrol, a silver nitrate antiseptic which was used in the treatment of ophthalmic infections and to prevent against newborn infant blindness caused by gonorrhea.[5] The two left H.K. Mulford and Company to organize a partnership called Barnes and Hille. This new company was founded in 1902. Hille ran production and Barnes ran sales. The company prospered financially, but the relationship between the two men waned. In 1908 the company was dissolved.[1] Barnes went on to form A.C. Barnes Company and registered the trademark for Argyrol.[6] In July 1929 Zonite Corporation of New York bought A.C. Barnes Company. The move was well timed as the stock market crashed in October that year.

Marriage and family[edit]

Barnes married Laura Leggett (1875 - 1966), daughter of a successful grocer in Brooklyn, New York. They had no children.[1]

When the Barnes Foundation was established, Laura Barnes was appointed as vice president of the board of trustees. Following the death of Captain Joseph Lapsley Wilson, she became the director of the Arboretum. In October 1940, she began the Arboretum School of the Barnes Foundation with the University of Pennsylvania botanist John Milton Fogg Jr. She taught plant materials.[7] 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 died April 29, 1966, leaving her art collection to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.[7]

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.[7]

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, Barnes reconnected with his high school classmate William Glackens and in January 1912, just after turning 40 years old, Barnes sent him to Paris with $20,000 to buy paintings for him. Glackens returned with 33 works of art.[8]

Following the success of Glackens' buying campaign, Barnes traveled to Paris twice himself, the same year. In December, he met Gertrude and Leo Stein and purchased his first two Matisse paintings from them.[9] Barnes purchased his collection of African Art from art dealer Paul Guillaume (1891- 1934), who served briefly as the Barnes Foundation's "foreign secretary."[9]

The collection changed throughout Barnes' lifetime as he acquired pieces, moved them from room to room to room, gifted pieces, and sold them. The art works in the Barnes Foundation reflect how they were hung and placed at the time of his death in 1951. There are over 4,000 objects in the collection including over 900 paintings and nearly 900 pieces of wrought iron. Some major holdings include: 181 works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 works by Paul Cézanne, 59 works by Henri Matisse, 46 works by Pablo Picasso. In 1923, Barnes Purchased Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), a painting once owned by Gertrude and Leo Stein, bought from Christian Tetzen-Lund through Paul Guillaume for 45,000 francs.[10] In 1927, he purchased Renoir's The Artist’s Family from Claude Renoir through Galerie Barbazanges for $50,000.[11] The collection also includes many other paintings and works by leading European and American artists, as well as African art, art from China, Greece, and Native American peoples.

The Barnes Foundation[edit]

Barnes had a longtime interest in education, he held two hour long employee seminars at the end of the day in his factory.[12] At the seminars, his primarily African American workforce would discuss philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics reading James, Dewey, and Santayana.[13] With friend and mentor John Dewey he decided to expand his educational venture. In December 1922, the Barnes Foundation received its charter from the state of Pennsylvania as an educational institution. He hired Franco-American architect Paul Philippe Cret to build a gallery building, residence (administration building), and service building. The gallery served as a teaching tool for students to study art using a method based on the scientific method. Barnes consulted with attorney Owen J. Roberts (1875-1955) when setting up the by-laws an indenture.[14] In 1925, the buildings were completed and the Barnes Foundation opened. The collection is not hung traditionally, instead they are arranged in "ensembles" which are organized following the formal principles of light, color, line, and space. The focus of Barnes's teachings were on the art itself rather than its historic context, chronology, style, or genre. Barnes did not provide documentation on the meaning of each arrangement.


Since the Barnes Foundation was an educational institution, Barnes limited access to the collection, and often required people to make appointments by letter. He often declined visitors who wrote and asked to visit. He especially did not appreciate the wealthy and entitled requesting visits and would often rudely answer them. In 1939, Barnes sent a letter positing as a secretary informing Walter Chrysler he could not visit because he "is not to be disturbed during his strenuous efforts to break the world's record for gold-fish swallowing."[15]

Influenced by the Philadelphia Museum of Art's handling of the donated art collection of his late lawyer, John Graver Johnson, Barnes wanted to make his intentions clear in the Foundations indenture and trust. It stated, "all paintings should remain in exactly the places they are at the time of the death of Donor [Barnes] and his said wife."[16] The specific arrangement of the paintings and art have remained the same since he died in 1951.

Litigation to open the Barnes Foundation to the public began seven months after Barnes' death. In March 1961 it was opened to the public on Friday's and Saturdays, then expanded to three days a week in 1967, after Mrs.Barnes' death in '66, and remained that way until the 1990s.[17] Barnes also had strong feelings against color photographs of the collection as the quality was not up to par with the then current technology. In regards to a request for color photographs Mrs. Barnes wrote to Henri Matisse: “Despite the improvement of the photographic process, it does not faithfully reproduce the exact colors of the artist. And there is further difficulty in making color plates for a book.”[18] The stance is often criticized, 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."[19]

Relationship with art world[edit]

Barnes was known as an eccentric art collector,[20][21] in part for his antagonism to the discipline of art history, which he said "stifles both self-expression and appreciation of art."[22] 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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[25] 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.[26]

  • 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.[27]
  • The Art of Renoir (1935), with De Mazia.
  • The Art of Henri-Matisse (1933), with De Mazia.[28]
  • 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.) [26]
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.[29]

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.[30] 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'.[31] 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",[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

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.[36] 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.[37][38]

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.[36][39]

Today, the collection is estimated to be worth between $20 and $30 billion.[24] 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.[24]


  1. ^ a b c d “Biographical Note,” Albert C. Barnes Correspondence. The Barnes Foundation Archives, 2012.
  2. ^ Albert C. Barnes. “Art and the American Negro.” The Barnwell Addresses, v. 2 (Philadelphia: Mary Gaston Barnwell Foundation, 1937), 375-386.
  3. ^ Lindsay Edouard, “Antisepsis with Argyrol, Acrimony, and Advocacy for African Art,” African Journal of Reproductive Health 15, 3 (2011): 9; Mary Ann Meyers, “Albert C. Barnes: Chemist, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist,” Chemical Heritage 25, 4 (2007): 20.
  4. ^ a b Richard J. Wattenmaker, American Painting and Works on Paper in The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation, 2010), 13. 
  5. ^  Albert C. Barnes and Hermann Hille, “A New Substitute for Silver Nitrate,” Medical Record (1902): 814-815.
  6. ^ Declarations and Statements: Trade-Marks Registered in the United States Patent Office from June 2-9-16-23 and 30th, 1908, vol. 127, part 169, 247-69, 499. Trademark registration no. 69,328.
  7. ^ a b c “Biographical Note,” Laura Leggett Barnes papers, The Barnes Foundation Archives, 2012.
  8. ^ Wattenmaker, American Painting and Works on Paper in The Barnes Foundation, 19.
  9. ^ a b Judith F. Dolkart, “To See as the Artist Sees: Albert C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education,” in The Barnes Foundation Masterworks, Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation, 2012), 11.
  10. ^ Matisse in the Barnes Foundation, v. 3. (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2015), 153
  11. ^  Martha Lucy and John House. Renoir in the Barnes Foundation. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 2012), 299.
  12. ^ Albert C. Barnes. “Dr. Barnes of Merion Tells His Story,” radio address broadcast on station WCAU Philadelphia, April 9, 1942.
  13. ^ Laurence Buermeyer, “An Experiment in Education,” The Nation 120, 3119 (April 1925): 422-423.
  14. ^ Wattenmaker, American Painting and Works on Paper in The Barnes Foundation, 29.
  15. ^ Lindsay Edouard, “Antisepsis with Argyrol, Acrimony, and Advocacy for African Art,” African Journal of Reproductive Health 15, 3 (2011): 13
  16. ^ “Relocation of the Barnes Collection Fact Sheet” in the Philadelphia Opening Press Kit, Barnes Foundation, 2012 
  17. ^ “Administrative History,” Central File Correspondence. The Barnes Foundation Archives, 2006.
  18. ^ Matisse in the Barnes Foundation, v. 3. (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2015), 282.
  19. ^ Hilton Kramer, "Reflections on Matisse," in The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985–2005, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 162.
  20. ^ NY Times, May, 18, 2012, Albert C. Barnes
  21. ^ An eccentric collector and democratizer of art May 5, 2012,
  22. ^ Mark Jarzombek (1999), The Psychologizing of Modernity(Cambridge, U.K. Cambridge University Press, p. 135. ISBN 978-0-521-58238-4)
  23. ^ Jarzombek (1999) , Psychologizing of Modernity, p. 135
  24. ^ a b c James Panero (July 1, 2011). "Outsmarting Albert Barnes". Philanthropy. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  25. ^ Albert C. Barnes, "Negro Art and America", Survey Graphic, March 1925, accessed March 19, 2010
  26. ^ a b Art and Education manuscripts, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  27. ^ The French Primitives and Their Forms manuscripts, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  28. ^ The Art of Henri-Matisse manuscripts, Barnes Foundation, 2006, accessed 4 June 2012
  29. ^ Personalpedia, "Bertrand Russell & Albert Barnes"; accessed 2010.08.17.
  30. ^ Monk p. 248
  31. ^ Monk p. 261
  32. ^ Monk p. 262
  33. ^ Monk p. 263
  34. ^ GlobalShift, "The Art of the Steal Paints an Ugly Picture [DVD Review]"; accessed 2010.08.17.
  35. ^ 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
  36. ^ a b "Opening Scheduled", The Washington Post, June 14, 2011, Style section
  37. ^ Michael Janofsky, "Fight Roils Museum and Wealthy Neighbors", New York Times, March 7, 1996, accessed February 2, 2009
  38. ^
  39. ^ 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.