An Artist Collects

Scheuchzer, Physica Sacra, Genesis, Tab. II, after designs by Johann Melchior Fussli (ca. 1731), engraving, 13 3/4 x 9 inches. Collection of the author.

I attended college in Main Line Philadelphia, not far from the former location of the Barnes Foundation, which I visited frequently. I recognized in the Barnes collection not only the magnificence of its holdings, but also the idiosyncrasies and distinctive personality of the collector, Albert C. Barnes, who came across as remarkably insightful into the greatest achievements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as well as willful, irritating, prideful and withholding. After his death and subsequent decades of legal challenges, the collection was made available to the public (initially under tight and very inconvenient restrictions) and eventually relocated from suburban Merion to Center City Philadelphia. Even at its new location the collection remains stubbornly his six decades after his death: it still has his genius and all his lapses in judgment and taste, as well as his bizarre penchant for wrought iron hinges, locks, ladles, weathervanes, shoe buckles and door knockers installed with equal prominence alongside the Cézannes, Matisses, Renoirs (good and bad), and Picassos.

Barnes had a lot of money to play with, an often brilliant eye, an opportunistic streak and an avaricious, aesthetic sensibility. I don’t have any of that, except maybe the last: Barnes made all that art not only his own possession but his own expression. I understand that impulse.

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