Throughout his lifetime, Barnes developed a reputation as being abrasive, arrogant and contentious. Still, for 50 years of marriage, Laura was a loyal wife and remained a supportive widow of her husband's will for 15 years.
"The impression left by the Barneses to those who knew them was that Barnes was a great husband and that he and Laura had a great relationship," said Kimberly Camp, the current executive director of the Barnes Foundation, in a recent interview.
Laura Leggett married Albert Barnes when she was 27, in 1901. When they were courting, he was involved in pharmacological research with a German scientist named Herman Hille. A year after Barnes was married, he and Hille discovered a drug they called Argyrol, which was an antiseptic used for a variety of ills, including blindness in infants.
This made Barnes a millionaire, and, in 1907, when he quarreled with his partner and bought his share of the company, the Barneses' fortunes went up. In 1929, he sold his company for $6 million.
After the Barneses were married, they lived in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia and later moved to Latches Lane, over the city line in the village of Merion, according to an article that appears in The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion (2000). It was during this period that Albert Barnes began collecting the paintings of artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso and Pissarro.
Laura Barnes accompanied him on a number of his art-buying trips to Europe. It appears that while she supported her husband's plans to build an art collection, she did not share his passionate interest in the modern art of the time.
In 1922, Albert Barnes purchased a 12-acre site near their home in Merion, which was to become the site of the Barnes Foundation, an art school in which teaching was based upon his collection. In addition, the site had the beginnings of a large garden that interested his wife.
As a result, the Barneses decided to create an arboretum school, according to the First 300. The school would be developed and directed by Laura Barnes. As a result, she began plantings on a 10-acre site that would support courses in botany, horticulture and landscape architecture.
While Laura Barnes had no formal education in these areas, she was well-read, had good management instincts, and had the talent for getting the right people to teach the courses.
A student at the school in the 1940s who asked that she not be identified remembered Laura Barnes as "quiet and reserved."
Albert Barnes was less quiet and reserved, the former student said. She recalled being "bawled out" by Barnes for parking in the wrong place. "He was a sour apple," the student said.
She said the arboretum had a fine reputation, and the classes were full. Regular and punctual attendance was one of the few rules that Laura Barnes insisted upon, the student recalled.
When Albert Barnes was killed in an auto accident in 1951, the bylaws of the foundation made his wife the president and a director of the foundation, as well as the director of the arboretum at a salary of $60,000 per year.
During her tenure as director of the arboretum school, Laura Barnes received recognition for her work by receiving an honorary degree of doctor of horticultural science from St. Joseph's College (now University); being made an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects; and receiving an award from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
After the death of her husband, she followed his wishes and resisted proposals to make his art collection more accessible to the public until a court ruling forced the foundation to admit 200 visitors two days a week.
The ruling was based on the fact that the foundation was a tax-exempt institution. On March 18, 1961, the day the foundation was opened to 200 visitors, Barnes appeared briefly and remarked to one of her lawyers that this "didn't seem so bad after all."
Laura Barnes died at her home on the grounds of the Barnes Foundation in 1966, at the age of 92. Camp says that Laura's school continues on, with classes fully subscribed.
Contact staff writer Joseph S. Kennedy at 610-313-8212 or Kennedj@phillynews.com.