Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes of Philadelphia made his first art-buying trip to Paris in 1912. Barnes returned year after year until he finally amassed the greatest private collection of Modern art in America. While doing so, he cultivated a reputation as imperious, contemptuous, irascible and unconventional. But he also demonstrated a magnificent eye for the finest of avant-garde painting.
Barnes was both a medical doctor and a chemist, and his wealth came from the discovery of Argyrol, an awful-smelling potion that millions of mothers used to swab the throats or drip into the nostrils of children with sore throats and running noses in those days before antibiotics. Barnes did not invent Argyrol, but it was his idea to find a way of denuding silver protein of its caustic qualities without losing power as an antiseptic. His partner, a German chemist, came up with the right formula, and Barnes mastered the promotion and marketing of the medicine. After a few years, Barnes bought out his partner, and Argyrol became his property alone.
Barnes had long shown an amateur interest in painting and might have tried a career in art if that prospect did not seem so impractical for a poor boy in need of a steady salary. His father, who lost an arm during the Civil War, supported the family on odd jobs and a pension of $8 a month. Barnes attended Central High School, known as Philadelphia's elite school for poor boys, then, with the help of earnings from semiprofessional baseball, earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at age 20 and headed to Germany for postgraduate studies in chemistry.
A wealthy man by 1911 when he was 39, Barnes decided to return to his old interest, and, while in charge of the company producing Argyrol, embarked on a second career in art collection and education. He asked an old friend and Central High classmate, the Ashcan School realist painter William Glackens, to explain the latest trends in Modern art and make a trip to Paris to buy samples of some of the finest work for Barnes. Glackens returned in 1912 with paintings by Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Manet, Gauguin, Cézanne and others.
Barnes studied them carefully, then set off the same year on the first of his many trips to Paris to buy paintings on his own. He was enthralled by his meetings with European artists and critics. He attended some of the salons of Gertrude and Leo Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus. Paul Guillaume, the dealer, served as his guide elsewhere. A friendly argument with the French critic Waldemar George at the gallery one day lasted all afternoon. Another afternoon he and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz sat on the floor of the gallery engrossed in conversation despite the difficulty of communicating. Lipchitz spoke Yiddish and Barnes German.
In December 1922, Barnes arrived for one of his most momentous shopping sprees. By then, dealers and artists had learned to anticipate the excitement and profits of these visits. The magazine Montparnasse proclaimed, "Hallo, Boys. Cheer Up. M. Barnes est dans nos murs." (Mister Barnes is within our walls.)
Barnes, studying the wares in Guillaume's gallery, noticed a striking painting by an artist he did not know. It was the portrait of a pastry chef by Chaim Soutine. "It's a peach," said Barnes.
Soutine, then 29, had arrived in Paris without a word of French almost a decade earlier. He came from Smilovitchi, a village in what is now Belarus but was then part of the Russian empire. If artistic success depended on appearance, manners, hygiene, geniality, training and outside support, he surely would have been voted least likely to succeed. He struck his cohorts as a shtetl bumpkin, so poor that he always seemed disheveled and unwashed, so obsessed by his painting that he would slash or burn his canvases if they failed to fulfill his hopes.
Barnes insisted on seeing more by this unknown Soutine. Guillaume led him to the apartment of Soutine's dealer, Léopold Zborowski, in Montparnasse. Zborowski laid before Barnes all he then had of Soutine — more than 50 canvases, including more portraits, many tumultuous landscapes, a few still lifes of flowers. They included five canvases that Zborowski's assistant, Paulette Jourdain, had saved from Soutine's burning and hidden in her room. Barnes spent two days examining all the paintings and then bought 52.
"The main reason I bought so many of the paintings," he wrote later, "was that they were a surprise, if not a shock, and I wanted to find out how he got that way. Besides, I felt he was making creative use of certain traits of the work of Bosch, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Daumier and Cézanne and was getting new effects with color."
Barnes wanted to meet Soutine, and Zborowski persuaded his artist to put on a suit and come to Zborowski's apartment the next morning. It was not a pleasant meeting. Another painter — someone like Marc Chagall — would have been ambitious and grateful and sophisticated enough to try to impress and engage with his new benefactor. But Soutine was too shy, too tense, too lacking in social grace, too disdainful of acclaim to try to ingratiate himself. It did not help that Barnes, now 51, more than 20 years older than Soutine, was a formidable figure, a stern man with homburg, high collar, rimless glasses and pudgy, unsmiling features.
Barnes began by saying, "Ah, Soutine. Good." But little conversation followed. Years later Soutine pronounced Barnes a boor and complained of having to dress up for him. "I'll never forgive myself for having been an idiot enough to go to such trouble," he said.
Though Barnes never dropped his admiration of Soutine as an artist, he showed disdain for Soutine as a person after their meeting. Barnes told a friend years later, "I caught him when he was drunk, sick and broke and took the contents of his studio for a pittance." The artist and his great benefactor never met again.
Barnes' purchase turned Soutine's life as topsy-turvy as one of his landscapes. Word spread through the Rotunde and other cafes that the great Dr. Barnes had discovered Soutine and purchased scores of paintings. The shy, taciturn Soutine found himself hailed as a celebrity, even a trendsetter. Collectors began hunting for any Soutines Barnes had left behind. "Everyone is running after Soutine," said the envious French painter Maurice Loutreuil. The dealer René Gimpel described Soutine as "a star rising in the firmament of Modern painting."
The surest stamp of celebrity came in 1924 when director Jean Epstein used Soutine in a cameo in his movie "Le Lion des Mongols." Soutine, his thick hair flapping up and down, dances alongside the famous model Kiki amid a wild, gyrating crowd in a scene at the Jockey nightclub.
Soutine enrolled in French classes in hopes of shedding his accent. He now had more money than he had ever imagined he could have. He decided to vacation in Nice and hired a taxi to take him there. His friend the sculptor Oscar Miestchaninoff presented him with a book on personal grooming. Soon Soutine and Zborowski (who now had enough cash to open a gallery of his own) clothed themselves in silk ties, silk shirts, British suits and fedoras. Hardly any one sneered at him as unkempt and dirty anymore. A few now sneered at both Zborowski and him as dandies.
During the weeks in Paris, Guillaume led Barnes to the works of other foreign Montparnasse artists, and he bought paintings by Modigliani, Jules Pascin and Moïse Kisling as well as sculptures by Lipchitz. This was a special moment in the history of art in the 20th century. Not only had Barnes discovered Soutine, but he had recognized that a special group of painters and sculptors, all foreign, were now at work in Paris, and he planned to exhibit his latest purchases in Philadelphia, highlighting the young foreigners as contemporary artists who deserved study together. His recognition was surely the first by a major collector, critic or institution.
The artists' triumph, however, caused a good deal of resentment among some French artists and critics. Louis Vauxcelles, the acerbic critic credited with coining the names Cubism and Fauvism (though he had intended his labels to insult the artists rather than identify or explain them), described the young Montparnasse painters purchased by Barnes as "Slavs disguised as representatives of French art." Slavs sounded like a euphemism. Neither Soutine nor Modigliani nor Pascin nor Kisling nor Lipchitz regarded himself as Slavic, but all were Jewish.
It was hard to accuse Vauxcelles of anti-Semitism. Vauxcelles was a Jew born in Paris with the name Louis Meyer. His anger seemed to reflect the embarrassment and even alarm of some French-born Jews over the failure of many foreign-born Jews to assimilate French culture fully. The caustic comments of Vauxcelles were soon repeated with venom and hatred by anti-Semitic critics who believed the immigrant painters were besmirching the purity of French art.
The resentment over Barnes' purchases figured in a brouhaha over the placement of art in the prestigious fair called the Salon des Indépendants. In 1924, the Salon began grouping painters by their nationality. None of the immigrant painters would be identified as French. The well-known painter Paul Signac, president of the Salon, insisted that his new policy had nothing to do with the painters favored by Barnes. It was evidently aimed at the Dada artists who had infuriated Signac with their wild, aggressive, revolutionary ideas.
The controversy led critic Roger Allard to suggest a solution to the issue of nationality. In Allard's view, France should regard the group of foreign-born artists like Soutine who had spent so many years in Paris not as foreigners but as residents associated with the French school of art. He proposed calling them the "School of Paris" — a term that gained popularity in a couple of years.
Barnes had no time for squabbles over nationality. He had come back with a number of first-rate paintings from little-known artists and intended to show them off right away.
In April and May 1923, Barnes mounted an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There were 19 paintings by his discovery Soutine, the largest number in the show, as well as works by the little-known Lipchitz, Modigliani, Pascin, Kisling, Maurice Utrillo and Giorgio de Chirico and by the well-known Picasso, Matisse and André Derain.
Barnes anticipated that the Philadelphia art establishment would have difficulty appreciating the work of the younger contemporary artists. So he asked for understanding in the catalog. "Most of the exhibit is the work of artists now living in Paris but who were born and spent their youth in other countries," he wrote. "These young artists speak a language which has come to them from the reaction between their own traits, the circumstances of the world we live in, and the experience they themselves have had. ... To quarrel with them for being different from the great masters is about as rational as to find fault with the size of a person's shoes or the shape of his ears."
The reaction, however, was more hostile than Barnes expected, instilling in him a contempt for the art academics, curators and critics of Philadelphia, a contempt he harbored for the rest of his life. Edith A. Powell of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, for example, described Soutine's paintings as "portraits of the dregs of humanity" and doubted whether the public was ready to pay careful attention to his "diseased and degenerate" world.
None of this weakened Barnes' faith in the artistic worth of his purchases. He fired back angry and insulting letters at all these tormenters and barred most from ever seeing any part of his great collection again.
The foreign artists of Paris paid little attention to the peculiar ways Barnes organized his collection and then kept it largely out of public view. No matter how odd he may have seemed in the United States, he had an enormous impact on the young foreign painters of Paris. His purchases had given them a new identity. Other collectors now sought them out. The drama of Barnes' discovery of Soutine and his purchase of a mass of his canvases established Soutine as a salable artist for the rest of his life. Montparnasse owed a great deal to the stubborn and autocratic Dr. Barnes.
This is adapted from "Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse," just published by Palgrave Macmillan.