There are those who collect art for the status it brings them, those who collect it as an investment, and those who collect it for their love of paintings. No matter what their reason most people's collections probably don't exceed a few treasures they've managed to pick up at small galleries or at auction. The idea that one person could amass enough works of art to fill a gallery is almost beyond belief, but that's exactly what American collector Albert Barnes managed to do. Now a fascinating documentary, The Barnes Collection, airing on PBS Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00 p.m. (check you local listings) introduces us to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the people of his native Philadelphia.
The roughly hour-long film loosely splits along three lines. The story of Albert Barnes and how he amassed his collection, the history of the collection in America and Barnes', and his collection's legacy. In order to tell the parts of the story that take place in the 19th and early parts of the 20th Century the filmmakers have had to rely on interviewing art historians and those involved with the collection, still photographs, and readings from Barnes's correspondence and other writings. While that may not sound like much to go on for creating a picture of what this man was like, such was the force of his personality we learn more about him than you'd expect. It also helps that he was opinionated and outspoken in his letter writing and didn't hesitate to speak his mind on any subject, even on the subject of himself. It's not often you hear someone come as close as he does to referring to themselves as an asshole - although he couches it in terms just a little bit politer.
The historians associated with the The Barnes Foundation - the non-profit organization responsible for the up keep of the collection and programming associated with it - and the other art historians interviewed for the film confirm both Barnes' assessment of himself and fill in the details of his biography. His was the classic rags-to-riches story of the 19th Century. Born in a rough working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia, he still managed to go to university and graduate with a medical degree, although he never seems to have practiced medicine. It was through this education that he fulfilled the American Dream by making a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness that he developed with Herman Hille. He could have pretty much afforded to retire once he was in his twenties.