Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Albert Coombs Barnes

Every now and again, history throws up an individual so eccentric and remarkable that they deserve to become part of modern folklore. Albert Coombs Barnes is one such person, but sadly his renown is nowhere near as great as it should be.

Barnes was born in 1872 in Philadelphia, the son of a butcher. He paid his own way through university where he excelled in chemistry. As a young man he developed a treatment for gonorrhoea (rumour had it to cure his own) that proved so successful that he was able to retire, a millionaire, at the age of 35.

He subsequently founded the Barnes Foundation, which acted as an art collection and cultural centre. He also funded projects for the underprivileged of his home city. And he certainly knew his art from his elbow, the foundation included works by Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and many Renoirs, much of which he had bought for bargain prices.

Access to this formidable art collection could only be achieved by writing to Barnes to request permission. Applicants who had, for whatever reason, incurred the ire of the great man would often receive rejection letters from Barnes’ dog, Fidele. Here is one such letter:
Madame, I have received your letter of the –th, asking for leave to visit my master’s Foundation. Unhappily, being young and poor, my master was treated in a hospital founded by your family. As a result of intimate relations with one of the nurses he contracted a venereal disease. He has never forgotten this, and is therefore obliged to refuse your request.
He was also a strong supporter of the black rights movement in America and would frequently receive visitors of all colours at his home in Philadelphia. When this brought protests from his neighbours (this was 1930s America) he pointed out that he owned the land they lived on and threatened to build a hospital for the black community right in the middle of the richest district in town. This soon shut them up.

My favourite Barnes story was when a rich socialite couple came to visit the Foundation. They were met by the janitor who was busy washing the floors. They then proceeded to loudly criticise the Renoirs and Cezannes on display, at which point the janitor manhandled them off the premises. He, of course, turned out to be Barnes himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Barnes definately could have been considered " a BIG SHIT " in society during his time.Yet he didn't need the title, and maintained his own indivualism.It is his modest beginings,reality and humanism that makes him a champion in the eyes of many. One visit to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia his home, supports "everything's not shit".