Born into a working-class family in Philadelphia, Albert Coombs Barnes (1872–1951) showed his intelligence and drive early on. He was accepted to the prestigious Central High School, graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, and went on to study chemistry in Germany. He made his fortune by co-inventing the silver-based antiseptic Argyrol with his German colleague Hermann Hille.
In 1908, he established the A. C. Barnes Company, in Philadelphia, which he continued to run until 1929. A progressive employer, Dr. Barnes organized his workers’ day to include a two-hour seminar in which they would discuss the writings of philosophers like William James and John Dewey, and examine original works of art.
It was Dr. Barnes’s interest in art that led him to renew his friendship with an old high-school classmate, the artist William Glackens. In 1912, he sent Glackens to Paris to scout the galleries for modern paintings. The artist bought more than 30 works on Barnes’s behalf, including Van Gogh’s The Postman and Picasso’s Young Woman Holding a Cigarette.
This was the beginning of Dr. Barnes’s soon-to-be-legendary collection. Later, relying on his own eye, he amassed a treasure trove of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings, as well as old master works, Native American fine crafts, and early American furniture and decorative art. He was also an early and influential collector of African sculpture.
In 1922, Dr. Barnes and his wife, Laura Leggett Barnes, purchased a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pennsylvania. He hired noted French architect Paul Cret to design a residence and gallery on the grounds. This would become the first home of the Barnes Foundation, an educational institution dedicated to promoting an appreciation of fine art and horticulture.
Today, the Barnes Foundation continues to honor and build on Dr. Barnes’s educational legacy. In 2012, the Barnes moved to its current home in Philadelphia, a state-of-the-art building designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners.
The new building provides expanded facilities for educational programs as well as special exhibitions and visitor amenities. Dr. Barnes’s collection is presented within a 12,000-square-foot gallery that replicates the dimensions and layouts of the original Merion space.
Designed by OLIN, the grounds recall the Barnes Arboretum in Merion, notably the cedars and Japanese maples. A 40-foot abstract sculpture by the late Ellsworth Kelly stands by a reflecting pool near the entrance.