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An eccentric collector and democratizer of art

Albert C. Barnes was trained as a scientist, so it's not surprising that he would apply rigorous empirical discipline to the less categorical activity of collecting art.

Albert C. Barnes was trained as a scientist, so it's not surprising that he would apply rigorous empirical discipline to the less categorical activity of collecting art.

But then, given the doctor's humble origins in working-class Philadelphia, it's testimony to his aspirational zeal that he was able to acquire the wealth not only to buy as much art as he did but also to create one of the greatest and most eclectic collections in America.

Barnes was born on Jan. 2, 1872, in the city's Kensington section. His father had been a butcher before the Civil War, but after losing most of his right arm at the Battle of Cold Harbor, he became a letter carrier. Barnes' mother had Pennsylvania German ancestors, a connection reflected in the furniture and pottery he collected.

His rise was a classic American success story. He was sufficiently intelligent and industrious to pass the entrance exam for Central High School, the city's elite secondary school, then moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a medical degree at age 20.

He never practiced clinically because he was more interested in research, especially in chemistry. He pursued advanced study in Germany, where he met Hermann Hille, the scientist who would move to the United States and become his business partner.

Barnes and Hille developed a silver-based antiseptic they called Argyrol, which they began marketing in 1902 as a prophylactic to prevent blindness in newborn infants. It was an immediate commercial success.

After he subsequently bought out Hille in what, from this distance, looks like a hostile takeover, Barnes made enough money to support a ravenous appetite for acquiring art, and to create the educational foundation that bears his name.

He married a Brooklyn woman, Laura Leggett, in 1901, and in the early years of the A.C. Barnes Co. - begun in 1908 after the dissolution of Barnes & Hille - they settled into a bourgeois life on the Main Line.

As a nouveau riche, Barnes had begun to collect 19th-century art before a high school friend, painter William J. Glackens, came back into his life. Glackens, one of the so-called Ashcan Realists, urged his friend to collect more "modern" paintings. In 1912, Barnes sent Glackens to Paris to find some.

What Glackens bought for Barnes became the nucleus of the astonishing collection, rich in impressionist and postimpressionist pictures. He eventually would house them in a purpose-built gallery building on Latchs Lane in Merion. The property was also an arboretum, and in the mid-1930s the foundation developed a program in horticultural practice that continues.

Barnes fancied himself an intellectual, expert not only in art - he wrote several books on aesthetics and individual artists - but also in psychology. He developed a lifelong friendship with the philosopher John Dewey, who served as the foundation's first director of education, and with collector Leo Stein, brother of the writer Gertrude.

These two men seem to be the few people he regarded as intellectual peers. He disdained art historians, museum directors, educators generally, and other collectors, often in colorful and excessively combative language.

As a chemist, Barnes proceeded from a solid academic foundation, but in art he was essentially an autodidact, which could account for his extreme sensitivity to criticism, his competitiveness, and his refusal to recognize dissenting opinions about the relative merits of individual artists and works of art.

In selecting items for his collection, he could be brilliantly perceptive and prescient; on the other hand, he also bought a lot of mediocre works, and his attitudes toward the cultural establishment could be coarse and peremptory.

He was, in short, a complex and contradictory personality, inconsistent, sometimes vindictive, occasionally malicious.

Yet there was another, more humane and attractive side to Albert Barnes. He was exposed to African American culture as a child when his mother took him to religious camp meetings in New Jersey. He became so enchanted by black gospel music that he often invited young black choirs to perform at the Merion foundation.

Late in his life, he befriended West Chester painter Horace Pippin and Horace Mann Bond, president of historically black Lincoln University. The latter friendship led Barnes to entrust the future of his foundation to the school.

As a businessman, he was unusually enlightened for his time, creating a pension plan for the employees of the A.C. Barnes Co., many of whom were African American in an era when racially mixed workforces were rare.

He also instituted art classes for them that, like those at the foundation proper, were designed to demonstrate that ordinary working people could learn to appreciate the beauties of art by learning, through the Barnes method, to analyze paintings visually.

Barnes wasn't a joiner or glad-hander, with one notable exception, the Narberth Fire Company, which elected him a life member in 1924. He apparently formed this association through Albert H. Nulty, who worked for Barnes in various capacities from 1917 to his death in 1957. The company's chief for 15 years in the 1940s and '50s, Nulty was a jack-of-all-trades for Barnes, as well as a confidant, adviser, and friend.

His grandson, Edward Dixon, recalls that the two families were so close that "Mrs. Barnes was like my grandmother." (The Barneses had no children.) As for the irascible doctor, "He could be physically and intellectually intimidating, but also the kindest person you would ever want to meet."

Barnes not only commissioned a memorial plaque for Charles Noel, a Narberth fire chief killed in a fire, he also paid Noel's funeral expenses, Dixon said. After Barnes' death, in a car crash in 1951, Laura Barnes gave the company a rescue truck in his honor.

Scholar Richard Wattenmaker, a former Barnes student and teacher, points out in his 2010 catalog of the foundation's American art that Barnes was a social and political liberal, not only in his appreciation of African American culture but also in his support of what we now call civil rights. He also was generous to artists and art students, paying expenses for some to travel to Europe and visit art collections and buying the work of others.

Barton Church, a Barnes student who later taught at the foundation for more than 50 years, was one such beneficiary of the doctor's philanthropy, as were the Pinto brothers, Angelo, Biagio, and Salvatore. All are represented in the foundation's collection.

Barnes' stormy relations with Philadelphia's cultural and educational institutions, especially the Art Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, indicate that dealings with him had to be on his terms or not at all. He could not be challenged or contradicted on art issues, nor was he amenable to compromise in aesthetic debate.

Yet his achievement, not only in collecting but also in his attempt to demystify and democratize art, was exceptional and admirable. One can criticize his philosophy and his methods, but his educational initiative, in art and in horticulture, deserves to be honored as much as the remarkable collection that many people are only now discovering.