Museum Bookstore looks at the history of The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

With one of the world's greatest collection of impressionist and early modern paintings, an idiosyncratic display and a history dominated by eccentric personalities and legal wrangles, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is inspiring and intriguing in equal measure.

Dr Albert C. Barnes was born in Philadelphia in 1872. He was a talented athlete, who boxed and played baseball semi-professionally to help pay for his schooling. He went on to make his fortune by producing Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness. Barnes started his art collection with the guidance of his childhood friend, the painter, William Glackens, whom he sent to Paris in 1912 to buy art. Glackens returned with 33 paintings including van Gogh’s The Postman and Picasso’s Woman Holding a Cigarette, laying the foundation of one of world's greatest collection of early modern paintings. Barnes went on to work with Parisian dealers including Durand-Ruel and Guillame to build his collection and set up the Barnes Foundation in 1922.

Albert Barnes - Museum Bookstore blog 

In 1929, just months before the Wall Street crash, Barnes sold his company, A.C Barnes Company, to concentrate full time on his art collecting. With money in his hand, and operating within the poor economic conditions during the Great Depression, Barnes was able to acquire art at bargain prices:  ‘Particularly during the Depression my specialty was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their heads’.

Barnes assembled a large and uneven treasure-house of paintings, metalwork, furniture, and plants, including 181 (yes, you read that correctly, 181!) Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 46 Picassos and 59 Matisses, amongst many others. 

Museum Bookstore looks at the history of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Barnes ­dictated who could see his collection and when, and how it was housed, hung, and reproduced.  Requests from art critics were categorically denied, usually signed by Barnes’s dog Fidèle with an inked paw print. Barnes famously turned down poet, T.S Eliot’s request to visit the collection with a one-word answer, ‘Nuts’. He prohibited the loan of works, the touring of the collection and the move of the collection from its original gallery in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania – stipulations that he included in his will.  

Even today, the Foundation is obliged to retain Barnes’s symmetrical and unusual display whereby paintings, metalwork, sculpture and decorative arts of different periods, cultures, styles and genres are combined in symmetrical wall arrangementsNew York Magazine described the Barnes Foundation as 'one of the greatest ... and most oddly displayed collections of post-Impressionism and early Modernism'.

Museum Bookstore looks at the history of the Barnes Foundation

After Barnes' death in 1951, the museum became embroiled in fierce and prolonged financial, legal and community disputes as litigious directors sought to gain control of $4.5 billion of art. These disputes, which lasted for nearly half a century, culminated in a series of lawsuits for the Foundation's President in the 1990s and near-bankruptcy for the collection.  

After decades of wrangling, the Foundation was moved in 2012 into a more accessible, better-equipped and more flexible building, which was designed by husband-and-wife architectural team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.  Located on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Foundation is open six days a week and publishes beautiful catalogues of the collection - moves that all allow this incredible art collection to shine.

Today, the feuds are slowly fading but people still remain divided over the story of the Barnes Foundation. Some see it as a tale demonstrating that owners of art are simply temporary caretakers whose wishes should not be held sacrosanct in perpetuity. Others see the recent history of the Barnes Foundation as a betrayal of the legacy of a man. What remains certain is that the collection is an extraordinary one and is a great reason for art lovers and museum goers to go visit the wonderful city of Philadelphia or to buy the Barnes Foundation's beautiful catalogues and books.

Barnes Foundation - Museum Bookstore blog


Recommended reading

African Art in the Barnes: The Triumph of L’Art negre and the Harlem Renaissance

Renoir in the Barnes Foundation

Art held hostage



Address:          2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, United States
Phone:             +1 215-278-7200
Visiting hours: 10am-5pm
                          Closed Tuesdays

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