The Devil and Dr Barnes

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7039.1169a (Published 04 May 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1169
  1. Peter Dormer

    Howard Greenfield Marion Boyars, £12.95, pp 310 ISBN 0 7145 3006 9

    Albert Barnes MD was an American monster who collected art on a grand scale and turned famous scholars and young academics into milksops. Barnes became the Richard Nixon of an art world which he terrorised from his infamous Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

    Barnes (1870-1951) was a doctor who did not practise because it would have taken him too long to make money from the profession. He made his millions quickly from manufacturing Argyrol, a silver compound based antiseptic which he and a German chemist invented. Having made his pile he started buying art. He bought Renoirs by the armful and he was the first man to see merit in the agonised paintings of the Lithuanian artist Chaim Soutine.

    Barnes quarelled with everyone: the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Museum, the press, and anyone who disagreed with him. He relentlessly rubbished his critics by publishing childishly vituperative letters or condemnatory pamphlets. The endlessness of the rows recorded in this unofficial biography becomes monotonous.

    Naturally Barnes was unacceptable to Philadelphian society, and he returned the feelings with interest. When he turned his art collection into an educational foundation he ensured that no one with “connections” got through the door. The best chance of seeing the paintings or enrolling as a student on one of Barnes's quixotic courses was to be poor or semi literate or black—and to have read one of Barnes's books.

    Barnes championed the black community but also played a racist card when it suited him. When a building developer proposed erecting 20 houses near the foundation buildings, Barnes told the city that if this was allowed he would empty the foundation of its paintings and turn it into a black college. He counted on the occupants of the grand suburb in which the foundation is located rising in alarm in fear of a black slum.

    The claim that Barnes had developed a science of art appreciation is not explained in The Devil and Dr Barnes, which is unfortunate because this was Barnes's big idea and the theory behind it should have been summarised by the author. The science seems to have let Barnes down from time to time because the collection is patchy: it does not take your breath away like the mind dazzling Frick collection in New York.

    Much is made of the fact that Barnes was a lifelong friend of the American scholar John Dewey. Barnes turned Dewey, allegedly of independent mind, into his mouthpiece. Bertrand Russell is also revealed as a paper tiger in Barnes's presence. Russell was appointed by Barnes in 1940 to give a series of lectures. So intimidated was the great freethinker by the bully Barnes that he was in a panic whenever he thought he had displeased his employer. In the end Barnes got rid of him anyway. Russell, however, was at least able to turn his lectures into a bestselling book: The History Of Western Philosophy.

    Despite the several acts of generosity recorded in this book Barnes was a thoroughly nasty man; one young academic, first raised by Barnes and then damned by him, found himself eventually in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in 1953. Barnes had been dead two years, but it was his hands that had set the process in motion. Thank heavens he did not use those hands in the service of medicine.—PETER DORMER, journalist and author, London