Albert Barnes was one of the most legendary American art collectors of all time, and thanks to him, his collection is almost unknown to the general public 42 years after his death. But it won't be unknown after an exhibit of its greatest works opens at Washington's National Gallery today.
Barnes, an often boorish and controversial figure, bullied and bargained his way into the ranks of leading collectors of modern art, leaving a trail of bad feelings that still colors his reputation. He offended Gertrude Stein by literally waving his checkbook around while in Paris buying art. He hired British philosopher Bertrand Russell to teach at his educational foundation, but two years later he fired him with three days' notice. He barred the door to many renowned people, including collector Walter P. Chrysler, architect Le Corbusier, art historian Meyer Schapiro, poet T. S. Eliot and drama critic Alexander Woollcott.
But none of that alters the fact that during the first half of the 20th century, he amassed a collection of more than 2,500 works, including some of the most important in the history of modern art, and created a foundation around them in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pa.
It is almost impossible to believe what the Barnes collection includes. The figures alone tend to make it sound like a giant hoax: 180 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, seven van Goghs, works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Rousseau, Modigliani -- the list goes on and on.
We are not talking about minor works. We're talking, for instance, about Seurat's "Models," one of his largest and most important paintings. According to Francoise Cachin, director of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, writing in the exhibit's catalog, " 'Models' is . . . as significant for the history of modern painting as Cezanne's large 'Bathers' or Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon.' "
Of Cezanne's three large "Bathers," completed during the artist's last decade, one is in London's National Gallery, one is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and one is in the Barnes collection, which also contains the largest and most complex version of another major Cezanne subject, "The Card Players." One of the Cezanne still-lifes in the collection is "Compotier, Pitcher and Fruit," which Philadelphia Museum curator Joseph J. Rishel calls "among the most joyous and sumptuous creations of
A key Matisse
The Matisses include "Le Bonheur de Vivre" ("The Joy of Life"), which, according to scholar Jack Flam, "has assumed almost legendary status as a key work within the history of twentieth-century painting."
Another Matisse, the mural "The Dance," was commissioned by Barnes and is related to other major representations of the dance throughout the artist's career, including "Le Bonheur de Vivre."
Among the collection's 15 dozen Renoirs, the more important include "The Artist's Family (Portraits)," "Sailor Boy (Portrait of Robert Nunes)" and "Leaving the Conservatoire." The group of pre-cubist Picassos includes "Acrobat and Young Harlequin," one of the circus pictures to which he devoted so much of his imagery during the rose period.
Van Gogh's "Portrait of Joseph Roulin" is one of a half-dozen versions of the subject; others are in New York's Museum of Modern Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
All of these and 70 more of Barnes' finest paintings go on view today at the National Gallery with the opening of "Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation." The exhibit may prove to be the blockbuster of the decade, because for most of those who see it, the event will be tantamount to discovering a great museum.
This is the first time the Barnes pictures have left his foundation since his death in 1951, and public access to the collection has been severely restricted. The show's catalog reproduces the paintings in color for the first time; Barnes did not like color reproductions, so the foundation insisted on black and white.
The exhibit itself has caused a controversy because it breaks the terms Barnes set for his collection. In July, a Pennsylvania court ruled that Barnes' instructions that the pictures never be lent could be broken for a one-time-only tour to raise money for much-needed repairs to the building that houses them.
If Barnes knew what was going on, he would no doubt be furious. All his life he was nothing if not definite about his wishes, and he grew ever more implacable in his opposition to the art world's establishment.
A self-made man, Barnes was born in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood in 1872. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but did not pursue a career in medicine.
Working as an advertising and sales manager for a pharmaceutical firm, he recruited a German chemist, Hermann Hille, to work for the firm. But Barnes and Hille independently developed a silver compound called Argyrol, which was effective in the treatment of inflammatory conditions, especially of the eyes and nose.
Success in marketing
In 1902 the two men went into business for themselves. Thanks to Barnes' marketing skills, Argyrol became enormously successful, as it remained until the introduction of antibiotics. Typically, Barnes could not get along with Hille and ended up buying him out.
In his biography "The Devil and Dr. Barnes," Howard Greenfeld asserts that Barnes often claimed to have developed Argyrol single-handedly.
It made him a fortune, and he soon started to collect art. He began timidly, buying Barbizon paintings of little importance from New York dealers. But he was introduced to great modern art by his friend, American artist William Glackens, whom Barnes sent to Paris to collect art in early 1912. Before the year was over, however, Barnes had stormed the art capital himself, and came to know leading dealers, including Ambroise Vollard and Paul Guillaume, and collectors such as Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo.
A man with an insatiable desire for learning, rock-hard opinions and enormous energy, Barnes inspired intense loyalty among some, undying animosity among others.
Some he just wore out. The critic Waldemar George, quoted in the exhibition catalog, described a day in Paris with Guillaume and Barnes:
"We first went to the Louvre to see the Oriental, Chaldean, and Assyrian antiquities, then to the Musee Guimet, Musee Cernischi, the Museum of Ethnography etc. . . . and to the antiques dealers. . . . At noon we had lunch."
The day continued at that pace. Barnes exhausted the others with nonstop questions about artists from Rembrandt to Renoir, until at 11 p.m., after dinner, he insisted on going back to Guillaume's gallery to look at and discuss art some more.
His appetite for collecting was as voracious as his desire to learn. In 1914, he wrote to Leo Stein, "I counted 25 Renoirs, 12 Cezannes and 12 Picassos in my house." By 1916 he had 60 Renoirs.
Long interested in education, especially of the working class, he was a devotee of the theories of philosophers William James and John Dewey. In the early 1920s, he built his foundation building in Merion and opened it to a group of students for part-time study of his art theories. He regarded the foundation's educational function, which continues today, as its primary purpose, and he invited Bertrand Russell and other scholars to lecture but often ended up in feuds with them.
Barnes elaborated on his theories in several books. At the foundation, he organized the paintings according to his own system, frequently mixing old masters and modern works on the same wall to illustrate his ideas about the importance of line, color and form. He also collected American art, African sculpture, Pennsylvania furniture and hardware, combining them in the foundation's rooms. During his lifetime, he rearranged the works, but after his death they remained as he left them.
In 1923, Barnes allowed a selection of his paintings to be shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but the ignorant, hostile reaction of most critics enraged him. In succeeding years, he turned down the overtures of many who wanted to see the collection.
The late Adelyn Breeskin, one-time director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, applied three times -- as a student, a member of the public and a museum employee -- and never got an answer.
"James Michener applied three times as a student from fashionable Swarthmore College and was ignored," writes Greenfeld. "After he sent a letter from Pittsburgh claiming to be a poorly educated worker in a steel mill, permission was granted by return mail."
Barnes had stormy relations with various institutions that were interested in the collection, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania. Shortly before his death in an automobile accident in 1951, he bestowed on Lincoln University, a largely black school, the right to name future trustees of the foundation.
After his death, the foundation remained an educational institution, but for years was closed to the public. In 1960, it agreed to let in a few hundred people a week to preserve its tax-exempt status. Until the death in 1988 of Violette de Mazia, Barnes's fiercely loyal assistant, things remained much the same, but since then there have been efforts at change.
Not all of them have been wise. In 1991 the foundation's current president, lawyer Richard H. Glanton, announced plans to sell some paintings to raise money for building repairs. But protest forced Mr. Glanton to back down. He recently acknowledged that the proposal was "ill-advised."
He then proposed the current tour, which includes stops in Paris, Tokyo and Philadelphia, and possibly other venues if the court agrees. France is paying the foundation $2.5 million for the exhibit, and Japan $4.5 million (Washington and Philadelphia are organizing it).
During the tour, the Barnes Foundation will be closed for repairs, the rest of the collection will be in storage and the foundation's classes will be held elsewhere.
What: "Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern."
Where: The National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, Northwest, Washington.
When: Mondays through Thursdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., through Aug. 15.
Admission: Free. Timed passes are available for the same day and in advance at the gallery. Passes are also available through TicketMaster for a fee.
Call: (202) 842-6713 for information, (410) 481-SEAT for tickets.