The Medici of the New World

Article excerpt

IN 1923, THE COLLECTOR ALBERT C. BARNES agreed to show some of his recent acquisitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There were paintings by Matisse and Derain, Soutine and Modigliani, Picasso, Utrillo, de Chirico and Laurencin, as well as sculptures by Lipchitz. It was the first time that most Philadelphians had seen or heard of French Impressionist art. The reaction was immediate and devastating.

"These pictures are most unpleasant to contemplate," said one critic. "It is debased art in which the attempt for a new form of expression results in the degradation of the old formulas, not in the creation of something new. ... It is hard to see why the Academy should sponsor this sort of trash." Others questioned the mental states of the artists, calling them "morbid," "emotional," "diseased," and "degenerate."

Deeply angered, Barnes would never again present a public exhibition. Instead he housed his impressive private collection-one of the most extensive in America-in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, where entrance to the gallery was by invitation only. He also created an educational institution he called the Barnes Foundation.

People interested in seeing the collection had to seek written permission personally from Barnes. He could be generous or capricious with his response. Blue-collar workers were always welcome; elite members of the art world were usually not. T.S. Eliot, the architect Corbusier, and even the artist Lipchitz, who had fallen out of favor with Barnes, were turned away. However, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Salvador DaIi, and Carl Van Vechten were warmly welcomed and received personal tours.

The Barnes Foundation has recently undertaken a project to archive Barnes's manuscript material, including early records and histories of the foundation and its properties, drafts of Barnes's books, essays, speeches, and correspondence, and financial records documenting Barnes's collecting history. The archivist, Katy Rawdon-Faucett, says that the foundation hopes to make the archive available to scholars in 2006.

Barnes recognized that newness is not always readily appreciated. In the introduction to the catalog for his 1923 show, he had written, "To quarrel with them for being different from the great masters is about as rational as to find fault with the size of a person's shoes or the shape of his ears. If one will accord to these artists the simple justice of educated and unbiased attention, one will see the truth of what experienced students of painting all assert: that old art and new art are the same in fundamental principles. The difference lies only in the degree of greatness, and time alone can gauge that with accuracy."

The foundation he created favored experiential learning over rote memorization. During Barnes's lifetime, classes were free and students were encouraged to explore the many rooms of the gallery. Barnes's socially progressive ideas were evident in the foundation's bylaws, which specified his wishes for the gallery after his death and the death of his wife: "It will be incumbent upon the Board of Trustees to make such regulations as will ensure that it is the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places, who shall have free access to the art gallery upon those days when the gallery is to be open to the public."

Barnes's democratic principles may have come from his humble beginnings. Born in 1872 to a sometime butcher and letter carrier, he spent part of his childhood in one of the poorest sections of South Philadelphia, called The Neck. Barnes and his brother taught themselves to box as a means of protecting themselves. Keenly intelligent, he was encouraged by his mother to enroll in Central High School, a competitive public boys' school, from which he received his high school diploma and his bachelor's degree. …