This book is essential reading for any person interested in a fuller understanding of Albert Coombs Barnes, and why and how he built his world class art collection. Like any biography, it is not a complete picture; it does not, with a few exceptions, directly express Dr. Barnes voice; and is subject to the author's interpretation based on secondary sources, not on interviews with Dr. Barnes. That being said, the author Howard Greenfeld, has done a good job in bringing Dr. Barnes to life for us as a pioneer in collecting modern art, and in art education. It was the doctor's parallel interests in collecting modern art of the early 20th century, and in a more objective, analytic basis for art education that led him to form the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution, not as a museum.
The author details many dimensions of the man - both good and bad. Certainly, Dr. Barnes was near brilliant, graduating medical school by age 20, followed by post doctoral research in chemistry. He believed strongly in the scientific method, and in more objective, analytic analysis. In addition from a very young age, he was interested in art. With the wealth generated by his medical product Argyrol, he had the means and time to bring his interests in art and education to fruition with the help of his artist friend William Glackens, and Professors John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. He was self made, and dogged in learning about modern art. He also had issues. He grew up poor, and head to literally fight for what he had or wanted in life. He and is brother would box, to develop their skills, to hold off the other kids that would pick on Barnes. This "scrappy" nature stuck with Barnes all his life. He was not a man of compromise, or for finding a meeting of the minds. Rather, he pushed for himself - his own self-interest, and for his own views and beliefs. He had control issues, and demanded complete loyalty. The first time you overstepped your bounds, let alone crossed him, you were out of his life.
For me, the most important parts of the book deal with the "roots" of the Barnes foundation's 3 year art and aesthetics program, the germ of which started in Barnes' factory education program, and then evolved under Dr. Barnes direction at his Merion, PA gallery. Admission to the program required an interview, and was highly selective. Dr. Barnes and key staff were only interested in "earnest" students, and if your interest waned, you were quickly shown the door.
On pages 268 to 270, there is a dramatic example of the Barnes approach to analyzing art, versus a non-analytic approach. It was during a 1948 lecture regarding the Matisse retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when Abraham Chanin, one of Dr. Barnes former students, took Fiske Kimball, a noted architect and director of the museum, to task. Quoting Chanin to Kimball: "You have not made a single statement that would enable a person of average intelligence to learn what makes a painting a work of art, or what makes a painting by Matisse different from the work of any other modern painter.
Overall, Howard Greenfeld has written an important book that is essential reading to understand Dr. Barnes, the Barnes Foundation and the basis for its well regarded art and aesthetics program. It would have been a "5" if he had also addressed the important relationship among the arboreteum at Merion, Mrs. Barnes, and the art work in the gallery.