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Who is "Barnes?"

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Ellen Cohn


Barnes Reflection

Play in the City

Who is “Barnes?”

            Alfred C. Barnes was born in 1872 to two working class parents. He proceeded to build himself up in the world, and became a true renaissance man—meaning that he was educated in many fields and created a name for himself in many various areas. With all of the time we have spent in class studying his foundation, the movement of it, and his perspective on how it should be used, I began to think about how the actual person Barnes fit in. How did his personal life tie into his motives in creating the foundation, choosing the specific works he collected, choosing the location for the foundation, and limiting the audience.

            Barnes’ first success was in the medical field. At the age of twenty-seven, Barnes worked with a German chemist to develop a drug—Agyrol, which was marketed as a treatment for gonorrhea. During this time, Barnes showed a business-oriented mind, and the drug became an immediate success financially. By the time he was thirty-five, Barnes was a millionaire. He sold the business in 1929, a few short months before the stock market crash (which led to the Great Depression). He also conveniently timed his sale to happen before the discovery of antibiotics, which soon replaced Agyrol in the medical world.

            At the time when Barnes sold the business, he made $6 Million. This early success led to successes in other parts of his life, especially socially and artistically. When he first began earning a steady (and large) income from the Agyrol sales, Barnes married a well off woman named Laura Legget. The new Misses proceeded to create her own collection of artwork, and found an arboretum and horticulture school.

            I’m unclear on whether or not Laura influenced Barnes in his early collection of artwork, but around 1910, he began his dedication to the study and collection of art. He contacted an old schoolmate, William Glackens, who was living in France. Barnes commissioned this old friend to buy several contemporary French paintings for him. Glackens brought him twenty paintings, which formed the basis of Barnes’ collection. Barnes, who was able to retain his money during the Great Depression thanks to his lucky timing selling the Agyrol business, took advantage of the poor standing of the contemporary artists. He found many bargain deals on important and now-famous pieces of art, sold by starving painters who needed to keep roofs above their heads.

            At this time, Barnes’ collection had grown to around 25,000 masterpieces. None of which he paid more than $100,000 for.

            Instead of opening a museum, Barnes opened his doors in 1925, advertising his collection as an Education Institution, with the hopes of attracting students. He had hung the works according to personal theories of aesthetics, and made numerous restrictions to limit the number of visitors able to see the masterpieces. Barnes also avoided in-depth curatorial comments, preferring that his audiences see the creations, rather than the background in which they were created.

            Barnes wanted his foundation to always stay in its original location, with the paintings exactly where he’d originally set them. He wanted the doors to be open to the public for only two to three days a week, and for the collection to always be an educational institution. However, as we saw in the film The Art of the Steal, this did not end up happening.

            Some owe the move to a government conspiracy (like in the film), most believe that it was a natural move due to a lack of money after Barnes’ death. But either way, the Barnes Foundation ended up moving to the city of Philadelphia, were more people are able to see it.

            Although I initially felt that Barnes was being exclusive with his limitations of who could and could not see his collection, this in-depth study of his life has proven to me that his intentions were understandable. He was trying to provide a unique glimpse into a different world for the working-class people of the world. This is seen throughout his story, but one anecdote that I feel highlights his altruistic intentions involves his refusal to let a writer named James Michener enter the foundation. Michener eventually gained access by claiming to be an illiterate steelworker, but Barnes initial refusal of admission to the probably upper-class identity shows his philanthropic goals.


Works Cited:

"Albert C. Barnes." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <>.


Smith, Roberta. "A Museum, Reborn, Remains True to Its Old Self, Only Better." New York Times (17 May 2012): n. pag. The New York Times Online: Art and Design. NYTimes. Web. <>.


The Art of the Steal. Dir. Don Argott. Perf. Julian Bond, David D'Arcy, Richard Feigen. 9.14 Pictures, 2009. DVD.