The legendary cache of an eccentric collector begins one-time-only tour

May 02, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Albert Barnes was one of the most legendary American art collectors of all time, and thanks to him, his collection is almost unknown to the general public 42 years after his death. But it won't be unknown after an exhibit of its greatest works opens at Washington's National Gallery today.

Barnes, an often boorish and controversial figure, bullied and bargained his way into the ranks of leading collectors of modern art, leaving a trail of bad feelings that still colors his reputation. He offended Gertrude Stein by literally waving his checkbook around while in Paris buying art. He hired British philosopher Bertrand Russell to teach at his educational foundation, but two years later he fired him with three days' notice. He barred the door to many renowned people, including collector Walter P. Chrysler, architect Le Corbusier, art historian Meyer Schapiro, poet T. S. Eliot and drama critic Alexander Woollcott.

But none of that alters the fact that during the first half of the 20th century, he amassed a collection of more than 2,500 works, including some of the most important in the history of modern art, and created a foundation around them in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pa.

It is almost impossible to believe what the Barnes collection includes. The figures alone tend to make it sound like a giant hoax: 180 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, seven van Goghs, works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Rousseau, Modigliani -- the list goes on and on.

We are not talking about minor works. We're talking, for instance, about Seurat's "Models," one of his largest and most important paintings. According to Francoise Cachin, director of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, writing in the exhibit's catalog, " 'Models' is . . . as significant for the history of modern painting as Cezanne's large 'Bathers' or Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon.' "

Of Cezanne's three large "Bathers," completed during the artist's last decade, one is in London's National Gallery, one is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and one is in the Barnes collection, which also contains the largest and most complex version of another major Cezanne subject, "The Card Players." One of the Cezanne still-lifes in the collection is "Compotier, Pitcher and Fruit," which Philadelphia Museum curator Joseph J. Rishel calls "among the most joyous and sumptuous creations of

his career."

A key Matisse

The Matisses include "Le Bonheur de Vivre" ("The Joy of Life"), which, according to scholar Jack Flam, "has assumed almost legendary status as a key work within the history of twentieth-century painting."

Another Matisse, the mural "The Dance," was commissioned by Barnes and is related to other major representations of the dance throughout the artist's career, including "Le Bonheur de Vivre."

Among the collection's 15 dozen Renoirs, the more important include "The Artist's Family (Portraits)," "Sailor Boy (Portrait of Robert Nunes)" and "Leaving the Conservatoire." The group of pre-cubist Picassos includes "Acrobat and Young Harlequin," one of the circus pictures to which he devoted so much of his imagery during the rose period.

Van Gogh's "Portrait of Joseph Roulin" is one of a half-dozen versions of the subject; others are in New York's Museum of Modern Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

All of these and 70 more of Barnes' finest paintings go on view today at the National Gallery with the opening of "Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation." The exhibit may prove to be the blockbuster of the decade, because for most of those who see it, the event will be tantamount to discovering a great museum.

This is the first time the Barnes pictures have left his foundation since his death in 1951, and public access to the collection has been severely restricted. The show's catalog reproduces the paintings in color for the first time; Barnes did not like color reproductions, so the foundation insisted on black and white.

The exhibit itself has caused a controversy because it breaks the terms Barnes set for his collection. In July, a Pennsylvania court ruled that Barnes' instructions that the pictures never be lent could be broken for a one-time-only tour to raise money for much-needed repairs to the building that houses them.

If Barnes knew what was going on, he would no doubt be furious. All his life he was nothing if not definite about his wishes, and he grew ever more implacable in his opposition to the art world's establishment.

A self-made man, Barnes was born in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood in 1872. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but did not pursue a career in medicine.

Working as an advertising and sales manager for a pharmaceutical firm, he recruited a German chemist, Hermann Hille, to work for the firm. But Barnes and Hille independently developed a silver compound called Argyrol, which was effective in the treatment of inflammatory conditions, especially of the eyes and nose.

Success in marketing

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