April 2, 1912: Barnes Unpacks His First Shipment of French Art

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The now-demolished Youth Study Center and current site of the Barnes Foundation,
2020 Pennsylvania Avenue. Photograph by Francis Balionis, June 18, 1952.

“I know what you have,” William Glackens told Albert C. Barnes of his first stabs at art acquisition. It’s an “ordinary rich man’s collection.” You spent thousands of dollars and “they are stinging you as they do everybody who has money to spend.” Forget your “fuzzy Corots,” said Glackens, put them in the “attic” and “start over.”

Barnes, the chemist-physician-manufacturer of a medicine that prevented infant blindness had set out to cure another  blindness—the kind that afflicts rich collectors with no vision. Barnes tracked down Glackens, a former classmate from Central High School who had, only a few years before, broken into the New York City art scene as one of “The Eight”—a group of realists with a distinctly populist edge. In Glackens, Barnes had someone he could trust: not a dealer, but an old friend an “eye” who could help him unlearn his rich man’s collecting habits and start him assembling art that actually meant something.

What kind of a vision did Barnes have in mind? “I want to buy some good modern paintings,” he wrote Glackens early in 1912. And Barnes had the funds to set up an unusual experiment. He sent his old friend to Paris with $20,000 (the equivalent of almost half a million in today’s dollars) on an open-ended art buying trip. Glackens knew Paris a little, but he hadn’t been there for more than a decade, since he quit his job as an illustrator in Philadelphia to go on a bicycle trip through Northern France, Belgium, and Holland. So he turned to Alfred (Alfy) Maurer, an American painter living in Paris, who, as Glackens put it in a letter to his wife just after his arrival, “is going to introduce me to a Mr. Stein, a man who collects Renoirs, Matisse, etc.”

They got right to work. Three days later, Glackens wrote home: “I have been all through the dealers places and have discovered that Mr. Barnes will not get as much for his money as he expects. … Hunting up pictures is not child’s play. Poor Alfy is about worn out.” But less than two weeks later, by March 1, Glackens had completed his mission. “I sail tomorrow,” he wrote, “everything is settled up here and the pictures being boxed. I am mighty glad it is finished and I am sick of looking at pictures and asking prices. … I will have a devil of a time with the customs people over the pictures. I am loaded down with invoices and consular certificates.”

Was Barnes’ experiment a success? On the eve of his departure from Paris, Glackens wrote: “Everything has been finished up and the pictures are being boxed by a first class packer … I am bringing you a fine collection of pictures nearly everything I started for.” When the crates fresh from Paris arrived in  Barnes’s hands on April 2, 1912, he anxiously unpacked his 33 works of art.

Among the 20 paintings Barnes beheld “a little girl reading a book” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a “bargain” at seven thousand francs ($1,400) that Glackens was particularly proud of. Barnes unpacked his first Paul Cézanne: Toward Mont Sainte-Victoire (Vers la Montagne Sainte-Victoire) from the late 1870s; his first Pablo Picasso, Young Woman Holding a Cigarette (Jeune femme tenant une cigarette) painted in 1901, and his first Vincent Van Gogh The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin) from 1889.

“I have examined the paintings which you bought for me in Paris and I am delighted with them,” Barnes wrote Glackens. But  not entirely delighted. By outsourcing the task of buying, Barnes had forfeited the education of the search and the joy of the hunt. By June, he would go to Paris himself, to work with Alfy, to meet the Steins (Leo and Gertrude), to charm the dealers with his checkbook and build on what Glackens had started. But what Barnes unpacked in those crates one hundred years ago changed his vision and his confidence in collecting. Over time, Barnes would build a collection of 180 more Renoirs, 68 more Cézannes, 45 more Picassos and 6 more Van Goghs. And much, much more.

In Paris, Barnes would tackle something that Glackens did not—the world created by the new wave of modernists. “Art is in a strange state at present among the youth,” Glackens warned Barnes. “I confess that lots of things I have seen over here are incomprehensible to me as art.” Barnes took Glackens’ words as a challenge. In Paris, he made his way to those who created this “incomprehensible” art and bought some of that, too. Barnes would, in short order, make his way from art’s cutting edge to its bleeding edge.

In its own time, so would Philadelphia.

[Note:  For more on the Barnes Foundation at the site of the Youth Study Center, read another post at PhillyHistory published May 15, 2012: What’s Wrong With Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile”?