"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
May 13, 2013
Where's the Beef?
by Lawrence Jeppson

Dr. Albert Barnes tapped the fender of his new Cadillac and purred to another collecting friend, Leo Stein, Gertrude Stein’s brother, “This is the Renoir of cars.”

Stein, who had met Barnes in his sister’s Paris salon before the Great War, replied “I hope you are the Cézanne of drivers.” Barnes had purchased dozens of Cezanne paintings at dirt-cheap prices. He knew the painter and understood Stein’s reference. Few painters were ever as deliberate as Cézanne.

Barnes did not drive like Cézanne. He drove like Barnes, fast, hard, cutting corners, with no concern for others. On a hot July day in 1951 outside Philadelphia he hurtled through a red light at 120 miles an hour. A heavy truck smashed his car mid-side. At 74, the vitriolic Dr. Barnes was dead.

Barnes had amassed modern French paintings right and left as if he were Joseph of Egypt buying every bushel of wheat before the seven years of famine. If the collection he left were doled out on today’s international market, they would fetch several billion dollars.

Albert Barnes did not start rich. His father was a meat slaughterer, a trade that would have everlasting consequences on the son. The family lived in Philadelphia slums. At 13, Albert was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Central High School, where he met two boys who were to share the rest of his life — John Sloan and William Glackens, who would become important American artists. Tutored by Glackens, Barnes began to paint. His ability grew, not enough to make him an artist but enough to develop his taste.

Although Barnes began studying biology and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, he never ceased visiting museums and hounding artists’ studios. He pounded the art pros with unceasing cascades of questions. He had to know everything, drain every opinion, savor every nuance, weigh every point of view. He freely admitted, “I want to get a lot of money just as fast as I can so I can be free to follow the big interest in my life — art.”

When he was 24 — that was in 1896 — he obtained a fellowship to study medicine in Germany. He became stranded there, with no money to get home. In Antwerp an American counsel found him an unspecified job in a smelly oil tanker creaking back to New York.

“What do I do?” Albert cautiously asked the captain.

“We’ll see tomorrow.”

At dinner that night Barnes began to sing Negro spirituals. Impressed, the captain invited him to his table. Albert sang his way home.

A second trip to Germany four years later delivered Barnes his fortune. At the University of Heidelberg he met Herman Miles, another student. Together they began experimenting with silver vitellin, a compound of silver and a protein. Although Barnes returned home to marry, both men continued to experiment independently until Barnes summoned the German to Philadelphia.

They created a powerful antiseptic, which they called Argyrol. It was an instantaneous commercial success.

Barnes so harassed Miles that the German offered to sell out, exactly what Barnes wanted. Barnes became rich faster than his wildest dreams could have reasonably conjured.

While in Heidelberg he had begun picking up a painting here and there. Now he could collect art — but not before burning 200 of his own paintings.

“It is proven that I am not an artist,” he observed, “but I believe I have acquired enough discernment and taste to dedicate myself to the talent of others. Practiced in a certain way, collecting can transform itself into a sort of quasi-creation.”

Barnes haunted Philadelphia and New York dealers. His taste seemed to be frozen back two generations in France’s Barbizon school. Then, after years of separation, he ran into Glackens. Glackens had become a successful illustrator and taken a place as one of the best artists of the Ashcan School. He warned Barnes that dealers, aware of his wealth, were unloading on him a ton of second-rate garbage.

Glackens introduced Barnes to America’s avant-garde: Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Charles Demuth, Alfred Maurer, John Marin, and others. But the theater of artistic vitality was Europe.

Barnes thirsted to know what was happening on the Paris art scene. At the moment he was too busy to cross the Atlantic himself. So in 1912, he thrust $20,000 and a steamship ticket into Glackens’s hands. “Buy what’s best in Paris.”

Glackens laid out $400 for a Renoir. Then he bought a Van Gogh, Sisleys, Gauguins, Pissarros, Monets, Seurats, and Degases for comparable pittances. When he had 20 pieces he steamed back to America.

“It’s for these I sent you to Paris!” Barnes exploded. “The Paris dealers have tricked you worse than the New Yorkers tricked me.”

“Try to live with them for six months,” Glackens retorted. “If at the end of that time you still can’t stand them, I’ll take them back.”

A few months later Barnes and Glackens headed back to Paris to buy a whole lot more of the same. Glackens introduced Barnes to the salon of Leo and Gertrude Stein. This opened new doors and visions, the avant-garde of the avant-garde — Picasso, Matisse, Gris, Braque, Léger.

These strange visions overwhelmed Dr. Barnes. His eyes and brain needed serious new training. He had to understand what he was doing. So, at first he bought slowly, and he traveled, to London, to Berlin, back to Paris, back to New York, spewing torrents of questions wherever he went, back and forth across the Atlantic.

Although prices had begun to creep upward, he bought 14 Cézannes in one swoop.

In peacetime, Argyrol had been his goldmine. War turned it into a galaxy of goldmines. The antiseptic was needed in such prodigious quantities that the government took over production. Barnes didn’t have to worry about management, only about counting all his money. Miles, his onetime German partner, died in midwar, erasing any lingering litiginous worries.

By war’s end, Barnes’s collection was already an enormous mass. But the doctor was beset still by the doubts of the poor boy from the Philly slums. He constantly needed to buttress his faith in his own tastes. He sought approbation, often in vain. He attacked and sometimes even ruined those who disagreed with him.

He went on collecting feverishly, looking for the great discovery he would make his own, without the counsel of Glackens, the Steins, or the myriads of hungry dealers who laid themselves at his feet like Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak wherever he went.

One dealer was a vaunted exception: Paul Guillaume. Barnes said of him, “His gallery has become the Mecca, not only of all the important creators of France but also of America, Japan, England, and the continent. I’ve seen six chiefs of African tribes next to four chiefs of the Ballet Russe … all nationalities converge on this temple because it offers them the spiritual elements they need and because they are certain of finding there the artist they search in vain for in other places.”

A French art writer followed on the heels of Guillaume and Barnes on a typical day. In the morning after escaping the hornets’ nest of dealers jamming the halls of Barnes’s hotel, they hit the Oriental, Chaldean, and Assyrian department of the Louvre; then the Guimet, Cernuschi, and Ethnographic Museums. Lunch.

Questions — “Do you prefer Cezanne or Renoir?” “Who is greatest, Rembrandt or Rubens?” Then visits to dealers, experts, galleries all afternoon. The writer and Guillaume are dropping. Dinner. More questions. An hour before midnight, Barnes says, “Let’s go see the pictures in the gallery.” Guillaume is dead tired, but he has to endure.

On the morning of New Year’s Day, 1923, Barnes is on the point of entering Guillaume’s gallery for more of the same. His eyes fall upon a painting by an unknown artist displayed in the window. It represents a young pastry baker. Pierre Cabanne, a French critic, describes the work as “violent, brutal, done in heavy impasto by a man whose temperament had to be especially tormented.”

Chaim Soutine, Le Petit Pâtissier/The Small Pastry Maker. (This version belongs to the French National Museums, the Walter Guillaume Collection.)

That was art Barnes could understand. He burst into the gallery roaring at Guillaume for hiding the artist’s existence.

The artist was Chaim Soutine, whose hunks of beef dangling from butcher hooks was something Barnes really understood.

Chaim Soutine, A Beef Carcass. This slaughterhouse version sold at a London auction for £7.8 million five years ago.

Truth was Guillaume didn’t know a thing about Soutine. He had taken the picture as a sop for Soutine’s impoverished agent Léopold Zborowski, who scraped to find a market for his two painters, Modigliani and Soutine. The first was dead already, the second nearly so.

Guillaume had no recourse but to lead Barnes to Zborowski’s small apartment.

Overwhelmed by the collector’s appearance, Zborowski pulled out 33 Soutines. Barnes said nothing, but at each painting his jaw set more firmly. When Barnes became convinced there were no more, he declared in a shaky voice, “I will buy them all.”

He pulled out a wad of banknotes and dropped them on a table. No price had been mentioned — but that was it.

Portrait of Chaim Soutine by Modigliani

“Now I want to meet Soutine!” Barnes demanded.

A dumbfounded, unbelieving, and joy-hiding dealer tried to explain that Soutine never saw anyone. Barnes would have none of that. Zborowski and Barnes filled a taxi with the doctor’s purchase and took off for La Ruche, a decrepit old structure crammed with artists’ studios.

Guillaume did not accompany them. On the pretext of returning to his gallery, he went from unsuspecting dealer to unsuspecting dealer to buy every Soutine he could find.

Soutine lived in unbelievable squalor. The hovel was deep in filth. Around the squalid mattress he had saturated the floor with oil to repel armies of bugs while he slept. To the doctor who had made millions from the world’s most powerful antiseptic, the putrid odors of Soutine’s studio were unbearable. But, handkerchief to nose, he insisted on seeing more pictures.

Barnes floated higher and higher in ecstatic hallucination as Soutine knocked dust and debris of a procession of finished and maybe forgotten pictures. Perhaps 70 paintings were uncovered in the studio. A hundred Soutines in one day.

Albert Barnes could endure no more. He threw a clump of bills at the painter, ordered that every Soutine be taken, and fled.

In the taxi Barnes exclaimed to Zborowki, “There is the great painter I have been looking for for so long!”

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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