Dismantling the Art of the Irascible Doctor Barnes

by Stanley Meisler

November 14, 2003

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Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the patent medicine man who amassed the greatest private collection of paintings in America during the first half of the 20th century, behaved so outlandishly that it was always hard to write about his hoard of art without writing an awful lot about him. Now that his collection is in dire danger of losing its special and wonderful character by moving to a cold modern museum in downtown Philadelphia, he and his wishes have few defenders. I fear that journalists and other writers about art must bear a lot of the blame. We always made him seem unlovable and his presentation of paintings kind of goofy.

Three Philadelphia foundations have offered to raise $150 million to save the Barnes Collection from bankruptcy. But there are a couple of painful catches. Lincoln University, a predominately African-American university founded in the 19th century as a black Princeton for freed slaves, must give up control of the Barnes board. And the magnificent works of art must be transported from their villa in the suburb of Merion to a new museum that will be built near the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia.

It’s all kind of sad. Our continual belittling of Dr. Barnes over the years must shoulder some of the blame. His biographer Howard Greenfeld characterized Dr. Barnes as “stubborn, strong-willed, doggedly opinionated and total unwilling to compromise.” When he died in 1951 at the age of 79, obituaries called him a collector with “a talent for invective” who kept the American art world in “paralyzing terror.” When Barnes’s friend John Dewey died a year later, philosopher Sidney Hook wrote, “Dewey’s goodness was so genuine, constant, and sustained, it was almost with relief that I discovered a shortcoming in him. That was his indulgent friendship with Albert C. Barnes.” I myself, in an article for the Smithsonian Magazine a decade ago, could not resist describing Dr. Barnes as cantankerous, eccentric and capricious.

None of this was exaggeration. Dr. Barnes was often impossible to bear. He built the villa for his paintings in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia and then allowed entry only to students of his theories of art and a few outsiders chosen by whim. Poet T. S. Eliot, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, architect Le Corbusier and drama critic Alexander Woollcott asked to see the paintings but were turned down. Erwin Panofsky, the eminent art historian, managed to gain entry but only by posing as someone else’s chauffeur.

Barnes hung his paintings in odd ways and decreed in his trust that they stay that way. His collection had more Cézannes than all the museums of Paris, more Matisses and Renoirs than any other museum in the world, and more paintings by Chaim Soutine, a painter he discovered, than any museum in America. But he refused to group them by era or painter or nation. Instead Barnes sorted his paintings in crowded galleries by unifying themes like color or decoration or power or daintiness or drama or simplicity or space. He did display a myriad of Renoirs on one wall to show how monotonous a usual museum wall can be. Barnes allowed no labels. He wanted students to understand that a painting was a composition of paint, not the object described in a title.

It was all very confusing and a little laughable. Yet the experience was exhilarating and even magical. What a sense of discovery and joy to come upon some of the world’s greatest paintings, all untitled, all hung here, there and everywhere. The mood was mysterious and wonderfully special. You felt caught in a dark, crowded garden of painting delights. I cannot see that mood reproduced in a modern museum designed to attract hordes of paying customers.

It is upsetting to see the Philadelphia foundations so determined to kick Lincoln University aside. The Barnes Collection has fared poorly under a Lincoln-controlled Board. But Barnes anointed Lincoln largely because he trusted and wanted to honor a friend, one of Lincoln’s best known past presidents, Horace Mann Bond, the father of Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Bypassing Lincoln strikes me as a slap against history.

Lincoln has had a glorious history. Its graduates include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, poet Langston Hughes, and African leader Kwame Nkrumah. But Lincoln accepted the loss of board control after Governor Edward G. Rendell promised to ask the Pennsylvania legislature to appropriate scores of millions of dollars during the next three years for Lincoln projects. He also promised to help Lincoln raise an endowment of $100 million from private donors. Lincoln abandoned its history for what all concerned deny was a bribe. But it sure looks like one.

Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight proposed a few weeks ago that the incredibly rich Getty Trust buy the Barnes Collection and maintain it just as it is in the Barnes suburban villa. Knight estimated that the Getty Trust could keep the villa going with a $50 million endowment, less than Getty recently offered for a Raphael painting. But Getty Trust President Barry Munitz rejected the idea.

That leaves it all up to Judge Stanley Ott of the Montgomery County Orphans Court, which governs wills and trusts. If he goes along with the Philadelphia Art Establishment’s wishes and lets all the works of art move to a sleek modern building, we won’t have the irascible Dr. Barnes and his maddening system of display to kick around any more. That would be a terrible loss.

November 14, 2003
Washington D.C.

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