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Authority of the Risk-Taker Extraordinaire

Student 24's picture

To regard Albert Barnes as a character is to reduce his life story into symbolically significant elements that represent his journey and his ultimate purpose. To do this, I will only focus on the main steps that led him to becoming the character by which he is known today. Because I am not treating Albert Barnes biographically as a real human who once existed in real life, it allows me to critically and analytically approach his actions as if they were symbols that express aspects of his personality and character. I feel more comfortable making speculations and exploring themes in his lifestyle if I state that I am not talking about a real person; it is less judgmental and less disrespectful this way. I can also make remarks that might perhaps appear outlandish in relation to the real person of Albert Barnes.

I will first outline the main events and actions of Albert Barnes’s life and then I will select a few to explore in detail. I hope to examine which elements hold stronger representation of his character in relation to what he ultimately intended to achieve (which, according to chronology and the linear plot I assuming this story to take, is the establishment of the Barnes Foundation). 

  1. childhood in poverty
  2. raise money by tutoring, boxing
  3. attend University of Pennsylvania Medical School
  4. study chemistry in Germany
  5. with fellow chemist, develop drug compound of silver nitrate called Argyrol
  6. start pharmaceutical company, then sell for a large fortune
  7. build mansion, begin collecting art
  8. establish educational institution: Barnes Foundation

 (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

[Steps 2 and 3] Albert had to work to raise money so that he could afford to attend university. Two of the activities he did were tutoring and boxing. These two activities show two different aspects of his character. The tutoring shows his ability and confidence to be a teacher figure for a student. He trusts himself to sell this ability to share knowledge to those who need it. Boxing, like teaching, involves taking risks. These risks, however, involve the physical body and physical strength. The activity symbolically represents aggression, competition, strength, ego, masculinity, and the fight for superiority, as well as skill, timing, and control. In order to make money from this activity, Albert needs to successfully and effectively utilize these skills he believes he has. Perhaps Albert likes being in positions where he can exhibit his authority and power. As a teacher, he displays being comfortable with knowledge to the point that he is a teaching authority to his student and willing to sell that authority for profit. As a boxer, he displays being comfortable performing a role in which the desire to fight and exhibit physical strength and superiority is crucial to succeeding.

[Steps 5 and 6] “Pharmaceutical magnate Albert C. Barnes,” he was, (The Barnes Foundation, RIP).  This part of the story involves thinking scientifically as well as entrepreneurially during the production and selling of Argyrol. When it comes to the chemistry and scientific process of creating the drug, there are multiple angles from which to analyse the activity. Scientific thinking is methodological but it requires a lot of hypothesizing and reasonable creativity – reasonable creativity being the act of using one’s imagination but with the guidance and foundational rules of science and reason. It requires the ability to conceive of new things but only using rules and materials that already exist or of which have already been conceived. Albert and his scientists partners take many risks by repeating experiments, conducting trials, until they come up with a successful drug. The drug sells, and by starting up his own pharmaceutical company, Albert and his business partner begin to play at entrepreneurship. Albert then buys out his business partner. This means that he buys from him ownership of the entire company, rather than continuing to share it with his partner. This can occur when one partner believes that it is too risky to continue trying to make profit in the market, so they should quit while they’re ahead and the other partner believes that it is worth the risk and there is still profit to be made (Sable). Albert is successful in making profit by selling the drug and then selling the entire company for a large fortune. This shows the reward he receives for taking risks in medicinal research and development as well as pursuing profit-making through entrepreneurship. You might, though, question his incentives and intentions. Is his desire to contribute to bettering the health of humanity by creating this drug? Is his desire to make use of his skill in chemistry and create something productive and lucrative? Is his incentive profit, or engagement in something that gives him pleasure, reward, and satisfaction because the subject matter interests him?

[Step 8] “The foundation also was intended to promote art education by providing art classes taught by a full-time staff and by establishing a publishing program. (Barnes himself wrote and coauthored a number of books on art.)” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). 

“Barnes had over the years formulated a complex vision of art that stressed aesthetics on one hand, and pedagogical or political possibility on the other. It was a vision that required concentration, leisure, and first-hand experience of works of art. Barnes believed that the power of art depended primarily on its aesthetic qualities - such things as line, color, form, and textures. Hence he arranged his collection to highlight formal, not chronological, geographical, or cultural continuities. He limited attendance both to protect his students and to enhance the experience of visitors. He eschewed wall labels and those little exercises in social history that most exhibitions today feature: the introductory sermonettes that tell viewers what to think about the artist or artists in question. Barnes wasn't interested in telling people what to think. He wanted to induce them to feel, to experience, for themselves." (TBF, RIP)

"Barnes noted that he was particularly keen that 'plain people, that is, men and women who make their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores, and similar places,' have free access to the sustenance that art offers." (TBF, RIP)

"Albert Barnes used his money and his property to start an educational institution, not an art museum...that would adhere to other principles and pursue different ends [than those of the art establishment of his time]." (TBF, RIP).

I find these four quotes to contribute to this concluding step, destination, or final purpose of Albert Barnes’s journey and path of events.

Albert created an educational institution, which he could afford by using the fortune he earned through his work in life up to this point, for ‘plain people.’ By ‘plain people,’ he means low-income, not high or middle class people, who work hard but do not generate not much reward or wealth over time. He himself has been a ‘plain person,’ having grown up in poverty. Now he has gotten to a place where he is a figure of authority. Albert is challenging public education and educational systems in general that are provided by the government and other private institutions and by doing so, he is becoming a teacher himself. He is taking into his own hands the style of teaching as he once did as a tutor on an individual teacher-student basis, and applying it to a larger audience. This displays his confidence and self-trust to be able to exhibit and claim his style of thinking as better than what is currently offered by public education in society. After a lifetime of taking risks and repeated successes in a variety of fields, the patterns and habits have led Albert to build up the unquestionable confidence that allows him to regard himself as a figure of authority.


Works Cited

"Albert C. Barnes." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <>.

“Barnes Foundation, RIP.” January 2005.

Sable, Jennifer. "How to Buy Out a Partner in a Small Company.” 2013 Hearst Communications, Inc.