THE DEVIL AND DR. BARNES Portrait of an American Art Collector By Howard Greenfeld Viking. 306 pp.

WHAT SHOULD we make of collectors? To be sure, our attitudes depend partly on what they collect. According to the Guinness Bock of World Records, Helge Friholm of Soborg, Denmark owns 44,217 bottle caps, with no rivals in sight.

Fanatics of this sort usually drive one to speculation about the collecting impulse itself. Was Freud right that adult hoarding grows out of the child's delight in resisting toilet training? Should all sociopathic collectors be sentenced to classes in recycling? Whatever our conclusions, we tend to regard such people, fondly, as gentle crackpots.

Not so the "collector" who gets to put "art" before that word. Here a different figure jumps to mind. The cagey investor. The cultivated gallery sleuth. The enlightened patron.

Philadelphia's Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) may best be remembered as America's missing link between the crackpot and connoisseur classes of collectors. Founder of the world-famous Barnes Foundation collection of modern art in Merion, Pa., the irascible former chemist came to acquire an almost equally widespread reputation for rudeness, eccentricity and paranoia.

In a tempestuous lifetime, he managed to acquire some 200 Renoirs, nearly 100 Ce'zannes, 60-odd Matisses and many other illustrious works. At the same time, he successfully estranged Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, Alfred Stieglitz and other cultural giants while fighting lifetime feuds with powerful institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writing in The Devil and Dr. Barnes 36 years after his subject's death, Howard Greenfeld, best-known for biographies of Puccini and Caruso, realizes that many of his subject's firefights now count as historical minutiae. What remains is a peculiar personality and idiosyncratic institution, and Greenfeld offers a balanced account of Barnes' career, conceding to him his achievements while castigating him for his boorishness.

Like previous biographers, Greenfeld attributes much of Barnes' angry, domineering personality to his destiny as an outsider forever trying to be an insider, a self-made "thruster" frustrated by his inability to dent Philadelphia's old-money, Main Line cultural institutions. Born to a lower-middle class family in the Philadelphia neighborhood that later produced Rocky, Barnes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's medical school at 20, then struck it rich through the co-development of Argyrol, a medical antiseptic.

By 1910, with his business running smoothly, Barnes turned to collecting art. His first purchases came with the help of a high school friend and painter, William Glackens, who in 1912 headed to Paris with $20,000 of Barnes' money to buy new work. Over the next few decades, many other artists and dealers would become Barnes' sidemen, but never more than that. Barnes soon established a reputation as a decisive, indefatigable gallery and studio crawler. In time, his shrewdness in acquiring Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces made him the foremost American collector of modern art -- a French magazine dubbed him the "Medici of the New World."

To house his growing collection, he set up the Foundation in 1925 (four years before the Museum of Modern Art) as an "educational institution," not a museum. Barnes appointed philosopher John Dewey -- one of the few friends he never alienated -- his director of education. For decades Barnes would call upon Dewey's prestige to bolster his projects, and Barnes needed the backup support, because his crudeness and dogmatism gradually repelled many journalists, critics, dealers, academics and museum officials.

As a collector, Barnes often embodied the ugly American businessman. Gertrude Stein complained that he would "literally wave his cheque book in the air." He bragged about bargains and crowed over owning "the old masters of the future."

As a pedagogue, Barnes vehemently opposed historical and biographical approaches to art, as well as the treatment of art as a plaything and diversion for socialites -- he permitted no receptions at the Foundation. Fond of formalist theories of art such as those of critic Roger Fry, Barnes drew on them in his own books, which included The Art in Painting (1925). Teachers at the Barnes Foundation had to follow the party line.

Perhaps least popular was Barnes' behavior as owner of one of the world's great private collections -- he proved himself a whimsical, nasty, grudge-holding administrator. He refused to lend paintings for exhibitions and enjoyed denying access to critics and scholars while admitting untutored working people. According to Greenfeld, young James Michener three times failed to gain entrance when he wrote to Barnes as a Swarthmore student, but won an invitation when he posed as a Pittsburgh steelworker. It took legal action by the state to open the collection to the public for several days a week.

THROUGHOUT his life, Barnes could detect a slight -- real or imagined -- a mile away. He usually responded with belligerence. When The Saturday Evening Post ran an article entitled "The Terrible-Tempered Dr. Barnes" in 1942, Barnes rode up and down the Main Line, ripping down advertising posters for the series and inserting a seven-page rebuttal into issues on sale.

Greenfeld also offers many examples of Barnes' notorious venom as a letter-writer. To R. Sturgis Ingersoll, a Philadelphia Museum of Art trustee, he wrote, "I was already familiar with your reputation in Paris as a boob to whom the dealers could sell any worthless picture so long as it bore the name of a well-known artist." When Le Corbusier sent a friendly letter to Barnes, it was returned unopened, "with the word 'merde,' written in large letters on the envelope."

In the end, Barnes the outsider made sure he would remain so. He amended the Foundation bylaws to guarantee that none of the Philadelphia-area institutions he resented -- among them its art museum -- would ever win control of the Foundation after his death.

According to Greenfeld, both the world-class philosophers who played a major role in Barnes' life, Dewey and Bertrand Russell, analyzed him identically -- as proprietor of a massive "inferiority complex." Greenfeld's portrait helps frame the irony of this formalist connoisseur who veered too close to the crackpot side of his obsession. We wind up remembering not what Barnes collected, but what he brought with him to the chase. :: Carlin Romano is the literary editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.