The Barnes Collection

Published on 11th February 2017 by

A 2012 HBO documentary which tells the story of Dr. Albert Barnes (1872 to 1951) and his incredible collection of art which included works from Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, and many other modern masters. Barnes was born in Philadelphia to working class parents but studied medicine and went into research as a Chemist, making a fortune after developing a drug called Argyrol and then selling his business just before the financial crash of 1929.

Barnes started collecting art from around 1910, in his late thirties, and commissioned a childhood friend to travel to Paris with $20,000 to source paintings for his collection. The friend returned with 20 paintings which would become the core of his collection. He later took advantage of a buyers market during the Great Depression and added many more important works to his collection. Barnes proved skilled at sourcing art at very low prices and built a vast collection of around 2500 pieces which included 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 178 Renoirs. Today the collection is estimated to be worth up to $30 billion.

In 1922 Barnes formed a foundation, the Barnes Foundation, to display his collection according to his own unique aesthetic theories. He had a mansion built for the sole purpose of displaying the paintings and opened as an educational institution rather than as a museum. Time slots for viewing the art were limited and usually required application by letter. Barnes attempted to ensure that no authority could legally change these arrangements after his death, having seen the Philadelphia Museum of Art take control of another collection.

Up until the early 1990’s his wishes were complied with and the art remained in place in his mansion with limited viewing permitted, but the controllers of the foundation were struggling with cash as the endowment that Barnes left was proving inadequate. They received court approval to send 80 works on tour in order to raise funds, the paintings attracted huge crowds in various major cities.

The Foundation later accepted offers from the city of Philadelphia to move the collection into the city into a new facility, which it did so in 2012, the decision was subject to numerous court challenges as this was against the express wish of Barnes in his will. The Art of the Steal is a 2009 documentary about the controversial decision of the foundation to move the collection, it argues that the art has effectively been stolen by politicians.


If you can’t realistically get to Philadelphia to view the Barnes Collection then check out the amazing 2012 photo book The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks, a 374 page hardcover book full of high quality color images of the artwork exhibited in the Barnes gallery.

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