Between 1912 and 1951, Albert C. Barnes assembled one of the finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings in the world. Acquiring works by some of the most daring artists of the time—Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chaim Soutine, and Vincent van Gogh, among others—Barnes marked himself as a collector of great ambition and audacity.
American painter William Glackens made an initial buying trip for Barnes in 1912, returning from Paris with 33 works, including Cézanne’s Toward Mont Sainte-Victoire (1878–1879), Van Gogh’s The Postman (Joseph-Etienne Roulin) (1889), and Picasso’s Girl Holding a Cigarette (1901). Thereafter, Barnes frequently traveled to France to select objects for his collection.
Developing new interests, Barnes began to avidly purchase African art in the early 1920s, with guidance from the Paris-based dealer Paul Guillaume, and decorative and industrial arts from a wide variety of cultures and eras, in the 1930s and 1940s. The Barnes art collection also holds important examples of American paintings and works on paper, including works by Charles Demuth, Glackens, and Maurice and Charles Prendergast; Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles; Asian paintings, prints, and sculptures; medieval manuscripts and sculptures; old master paintings; ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art; and American and European decorative arts and ironwork.
With the establishment of the Foundation in 1922, Barnes commissioned French architect Paul Cret to build a gallery in Merion, just outside Philadelphia, for his growing collection and his progressive educational programs. In this space, completed in 1925 and crowned by Matisse’s mural The Dance in 1933, Barnes arranged and rearranged his collections in “ensembles,” distinctive wall compositions organized according to formal principles of light, color, line, and space, rather than by chronology, nationality, style, or genre. The ensembles changed as Barnes made acquisitions and new aesthetic connections between the works. Integrating art and craft, cosmopolitan and provincial styles, and objects from across cultures and periods, Barnes sought to demonstrate the continuity of artistic traditions and the universalism of human expression.