Albert Barnes had been raised in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, with experiences to match. Fistfights, not painting, dominated his childhood. Ferocious determination became one of his most characteristic traits.
His academic performance earned him a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, and he emerged a physician. He went into business manufacturing pharmaceuticals, and by age 35, in 1908, was worth $24 million in 2015 dollars. Gradually, as his business consumed less of his energy, he turned to art. His mother had taught him to appreciate it as a child, and now that he had money and leisure time, he threw himself into collecting as aggressively as he had into entrepreneurship.
Barnes enlisted high-school friend William Glackens, a painter, as his art buyer, and quickly became known in contemporary art circles. Right through the Great Depression he employed his business savvy to buy magnificent works for far less than their market value, taking them off the hands of the formerly rich who could no longer afford the pieces. His collection includes more than 40 works by Matisse, 60 by Picasso, and no fewer than 180 by Renoir. Yet Barnes never paid more than $100,000 for a painting. His trove of more than 2,500 works is currently valued at an astonishing $30 billion (the approximate worth of the entire Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
Barnes then became intensely involved in interpreting his collection to the world and erecting a building to house it. When a Philadelphia exhibit of a few of his works was panned by local critics, Barnes furiously withdrew his art from the city. Rather than let the Philadelphia Museum of Art touch it, he opened the Barnes Collection as its own institution in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1925—and not merely as a museum, but as an educational center designed to help adults and children understand and appreciate art (as he believed the Philly elite were unable to). As much as for the remarkable quality of the works, the collection became famous for Barnes’s detailed and iconoclastic requirements on how the art should be displayed for popular edification—by color, shape, craft, or similarity of effect, rather than chronology or other traditional criteria.
Barnes died in 1950; the last stewards of his collection who had known him were gone by the 1980s; soon one after another of his highly specific instructions for the disposition of his collection were being violated. In 2012, the whole lot was moved to a purpose-built museum in downtown Philadelphia, bringing one of the most impressive art collections in the world to a city its collector had pulled away from.
- James Panero, “Outsmarting Albert Barnes,” Philanthropy magazine (Summer 2011), philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/donor_intent/outsmarting_albert_barnes
- Howard Greenfeld, The Devil and Dr. Barnes (Penguin Publishing, 1995)