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Dr Albert C. Barnes

(1872—1951)


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(b Philadelphia, 2 Jan. 1872; d Phoenixville, Pa., 24 July 1951).

American drug manufacturer (a physician by training) and art collector. He made a fortune with the antiseptic Argyrol, which he created in 1901 (its success is said to have depended largely on its being adopted as the standard anti-venereal treatment of the French army), and by 1913 he was devoting his life to collecting. His greatest interest was in modern French painting, but he also bought Old Masters and primitive art. In 1922 he established the Barnes Foundation at Merion, Pennsylvania, to house his collection and ‘promote the advancement of education and appreciation of the fine arts’, and in 1931 he commissioned Matisse to paint a mural decoration for the building. When the mural turned out to be unusable because of an error in the measurements he had been given, Matisse did a new version; the abortive scheme, The Dance I (1931–2), is in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the second scheme, The Dance II (1932–3), is in situ in the Barnes Foundation. Barnes has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest single American art collector of the twentieth century’ (Joseph Alsop, The Rare Art Traditions, 1982), but he was a highly unattractive character: John Rewald (who was among the distinguished art historians refused admission to the Foundation) refers to his ‘dreadful, crude, and unspeakably stupid manners’, and Kenneth Clark wrote that ‘His stories of how he had extracted Cézannes and Renoirs from penniless widows made one's blood run cold.’ (His redeeming feature was his outspoken promotion of racial equality.) The museum Barnes created was closed to the public during his lifetime, but after his death legal moves were made to try to force the trustees to open it or lose its tax-exempt status. An agreement was reached in 1960 allowing restricted public entry, but it retained its reputation as a virtually inaccessible treasure house. In his will Barnes had stipulated that his pictures should remain exactly as he left them, but in 1991 a court ruled that this directive could be overruled to raise funds for the upkeep of the building, and in 1993–4 a selection of paintings went on tour to Paris, Tokyo, and several American cities.

Subjects: Art.


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