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John Quinn's Art Collection

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When few American collectors or museums were investing in the European avant garde, New York lawyer John Quinn (1870–1924) built an art collection primarily comprised of Modernist works. Through social connections and advice from trusted consultants, Quinn became discerning connoisseur and patron of new art. He helped fund the Armory Show and served as a lawyer for the Association for American Painters and Sculptors. His collection would ultimately include Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, Picasso’s Three Musicians, and Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy. Correspondence with artists, dealers, and enthusiasts held in the John Quinn papers captures Quinn’s unique voice as an advocate for artists and collectors and can be used to study trends of collecting in the early twentieth century.

Photograph from Quinn's estate sale
Photograph of works in a Quinn estate auction

Quinn’s art collection initially took form during his occasional trips to the British Isles, which began in 1902. A first generation Irish-American, he was interested in Irish culture, thought, and politics. He identified with the Irish people, and empathized with their struggle for self-government. The cultural element of the Irish nationalist movement was one of literary and artistic revival. He cultivated friendships with prominent figures in these movements, including artist and writer George William Russell (Æ) and the Yeats family. These connections brought him access to intellectual and artistic circles both in Ireland and England. As patron of the visual arts, his collection developed through both commissions and purchases of drawings and paintings created by members of these circles: John Butler Yeats, Jack B. Yeats, and Charles Shannon.

Entrenched in the Anglo-Irish art scene, Quinn continuously added to his collection. The ambitious lawyer directly supported artists financially, with frequent stipends that secured future works or entitled him to first pick. Augustus John, a close friend and early beneficiary from Quinn’s patronage, recommended in turn the works of fellow artists, like J.D. Innes and Derwent Lees. Trusting John’s taste, Quinn arranged for multiple pieces to be sent to him without setting an eye on them, which led to a few moments of disillusionment.

Quinn also visited galleries, such as the Chenil and the Goupil of London. He made contacts with domestic and foreign art dealers who acted as his agents at auctions and provided him with insight, catalogs, and illustrations that encouraged further purchases. He moved away from accepting work sight unseen, and later instructed Henri-Pierre Roché to hire Man Ray to photograph potential purchases and act on his behalf to facilitate a secret deal with a cautious Pablo Picasso.  In a letter to Townsend Walsh, Quinn resolved to spend money on “some good art.” He went on, “painting represents life or a moment of life and the older we get the more interest we ought to show in life and the less in a printed transcript of it.” With this in mind, he intended to seek out quality work by exceptional artists with little interest in mediocrity bolstered by a famous name.

Letter from William Marchant of the Goupil Gallery, with illustration of an Orpen
Letter from William Marchant at the Goupil Gallery with a small illustration of an Orpen

By 1910, Quinn’s tastes in art had become more worldly. Naturalistic portraits and loosely painted landscapes by English and Irish artists were only the foundation of his collection. As the second decade of the twentieth century began, his eye and interests shifted across the English Channel to work by Eduard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Quinn expanded his horizons and began to buy traditional paintings, drawings, sculpture and decorative art from China, Japan, Africa, and the Middle East.

John Quinn with Constantin Brancusi, 1921
John Quinn and Constantin Brancusi in Paris, 1921

​John Quinn contributed time, money, legal assistance, and art to the 1913 Armory ShowAlong with over seventy works, he debuted three Modernist paintings to an American audience at the show. These were Portrait of Madame Cézanne by Paul Cézanne, Tahitian Scene by Paul Gauguin, and Self Portrait by Vincent van Gogh. Created by artists with ties to France, these canvases signaled the distinct direction that dominated his acquisitions from then on. With the exception of a few American works, most of his purchases at the Armory Show were by artists working in Paris. Newly procured sculptures and paintings by Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon were Quinn’s entrance into more abstract and geometric art. Up to 1913, Quinn had expressed interest in artists with an Impressionist or early Post-Impressionist style, but had little regard for the innovations of the new century, specifically those of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. After the Armory Show, he would not only collect these masters, but pursue visually challenging work by Constantin Brâncuși, Roger de la Fresnaye, Gino Severini, and Wyndham Lewis.  

As the First World War ravaged Europe, Quinn sent financial and moral support to French artists. In a 1915 letter to friend Maud Gonne, he stated that “the world needs the artist and poet more than they need the world.” He perhaps felt his investment in the well-being of artists could possibly contribute to the progress of both art and the French nation. Such unquestionable dedication to its safety and well-being, Quinn later received the Legion of Honor for his service to the nation of France.  

Letter to Joseph Conrad quoting a letter from the front from artist Chabaud
Letter to Joseph Conrad (12 April 1915), quoting news from the front

Although he continued to purchase liberally, Quinn slowly evolved a selectivity in marked contrast to his earlier years of liberal patronage. As he matured, he rarely bought a piece of art solely based on the suggestion of an art dealer or friend. He now needed to first see, or to know the work himself.  When the war ended in 1919, he would only buy art created by individuals he specifically wanted in his collection. Thus, his sentiment for struggling artists and generosity was replaced by an informed frugality and connoisseurship. He turned down famous and little known pieces by both prosperous and ailing artists so that he might focus on those purchases which he relished most, such as Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy and Georges-Pierre Seurat’s The Circus. Placing primacy on his evolving taste, he later sold off a majority of the Anglo-Irish works from his collection. Citing boredom and dissatisfaction, he only had room for the drawings and paintings by his friends John Butler Yeats, Jack B. Yeats, and George W. Russell and those by French-influenced Nathaniel Hone and Gwen John.

Quinn's will, created in 1918

For most of its existence, John Quinn’s art collection resided in his Manhattan apartment, in storage, or on loan to exhibitions. In his letters held at The Library, it is difficult to determine Quinn’s long-term intentions, or posthumous plan for his collection of art. He considered opening a gallery, giving away the French works to institutions in France, or even permanent storage. Other art patrons of his era and caliber would go on to leave their collections intact and serve as foundations for new museums of modern art. However, the terms of his will stipulated his executors were to sell the bulk of it through public auction with a few objects being sold privately. The executors employed art dealer Joseph Brummer to head the project. In 1926, Brummer showcased parts of the collection in a memorial exhibition held in New York CityThis was followed by a small French auction and a larger New York one in 1927. The works that made up the Quinn collection were dispersed internationally.

Today, researchers are able to access The John Quinn papers to understand trends and networks of collecting art in the early twentieth century. Quinn’s papers brings us closer to his unique perspective both as a collector of the Modern and staunch advocate for emerging artists at a time when the modern was only just emerging in America.

For more descriptions of Quinn’s life and collection practices see B.L. Reid’s biography, The Man from New York , Aline Saarinen’s essay in The Proud Possessors, and Judith Zilczer's The Noble Buyer. For more information about the fate of his collection after his death, see Zilczer's  "The Dispersal of the John Quinn Collection" from the Journal of the Archives of American Art.

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