For the Record: Albert Coombs Barnes

Albert Coombs Barnes

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

As the Barnes Foundation prepares to move from Merion, Pa. into Philadelphia, it’s fitting to acknowledge the connection of its founder, Albert Coombs Barnes, to Penn.

Born in Philadelphia in 1873, Barnes graduated from Philadelphia’s Central High School, which awarded bachelor’s degrees at the time. In 1892, Barnes graduated from Penn’s Medical School, while supporting himself by playing semi-professional baseball. After completing his medical internship, Barnes never practiced as a physician again, but became interested in pharmacology instead.

Barnes made a fortune as the developer of the antiseptic Argyrol, and subsequently amassed an impressive collection of more than 2,000 pieces of rare art. His extensive holdings include many European and American impressionist masterpieces and early modern art, including works by Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, and Picasso. His collection of 181 Renoir paintings continues to be the largest number of the artist’s paintings gathered in one location.

Barnes started the Barnes Foundation in 1922 as an educational institution, with strict limits to its use and very specific rules about its operations. Barnes was known for his ambition and his artistic sensibility, as well as his eccentricity.

At the Foundation, he insisted that the art be displayed in a unique way, exhibiting the works by their formal and expressive similarities rather than using the traditional method of grouping items by the date it was created, the place of origin, the type of item, or its medium. In accordance with Barnes’ will, the artwork was displayed in the non-traditional groupings at the Foundation in Merion for decades. When Barnes died in 1951, The New York Times described him as “impatient and unpredictable,” with “a talent for invective.”

After multiple court battles over stipulations to keep the Foundation in Merion, a judge ruled in 2004 that the institution could move its collection to a new location on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, within a few blocks of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum. The new museum opens in May.

Originally published on February 16, 2012