ALBERT C. BARNES (1872 – 1951)

    ... was an art-collector, a philanthropist; Barnes is also famous for his long-enduring friendship with philosopher John DEWEY (1859-1952)

    Albert C. Barnes was born in a working-class family; the family lived in a hard, working-poor Philadelphia neighborhood, Kensington, the home of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. Barnes started medical studies, and became a doctor when he was 20, but preferred research as a chemist. Because he was so poor, he had to work to earn money (was a tutor, a boxer, and semi-professional baseball player).

    He remains famous for developing an antiseptic solution he marketed as Argyrol, a treatment for infant blindness. The drug was financially so successful that, in 1902, his firm announced profits equivalent to today’s $6,849,038. In 1907, Barnes had become a millionaire at the age of 35. In July 1929, he sold his business for a reported sum of $6 million – just before the crash at Wall Street.

    His wife, Laura Barnes developed an Arboretum for the firm and founded the Arboretum School in 1940; up to know it has been working in association with Harvard University College. He himself changed the organization of labour in his own pharmaceutical firm : employees have to collaborate, and choose their own schedule; there are educational pauses for the whole staff, and seminars with invited lecturers.

    He started collecting art in 1910. He actually met Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Modigliani, de Chirico, Soutine. His collection includes 69 Cézannes 178 Renoirs. He also bought works by Rousseau (le Douanier -), Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, and Vincent van Gogh.

    In 1925, he created an educational institution, the Barnes Foundation, in Lower Merion (Pa), based on his private collection of art-works displayed according to his own aesthetic choices, drastically restricting the number of visitors to favour students. These theories were drawn from the ideas of William James, George Santayana, and John Dewey—about how people looked at and learned from art. The goal of the Barnes Foundation was for the purpose of "promot[ing] the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts." In Spring 1923, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had exhibited 75 pieces of Barnes’ collection (Soutine, Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso etc.). The event had been strongly criticized by the press. From then on, Barnes started a dislike for museums and casual art-viewers.



    In Democracy and Education (1916), John Dewey insisted that developing cognitive skills is education better than memorizing facts. So in front of artworks, you do not need to know anything apart from the painting or statue you have to understand. So works are shown without labels or chronology : they are simply arranged on the wall, and the students are sensitive enough to connect the styles, periods, and research of the artists in the collection. Comments would be verbose and useless in terms of revealing the meaning of the works displayed.  

    Thanks to his mother’s involvement in active Methodist charities, Barnes got to know African-Americans at a very early age. Later he was extremely interested in the “Harlem Renaissance” (expressing his admiration of "black soul" in "Negro Art and America", an essay, 1925)


    Thank you very much, Tatiana, for the very informative paper you presented at our Dewey symposium : Tatiana LEVY (Ec. Sup. d’Art, ENSA Bourges): “A.C. Barnes, J. Dewey. Que transmet le collectionneur aujourd’hui ? ». See also :




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