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John Quinn and the 1913 Armory Show


The Armory Show is celebrating its centennial this year, which has been marked by international conferences and commemorative exhibitions. Originally devised as a way for the Association of American Painters and Sculptors to promote the output of its members, the show is remembered for introducing European Avant-Garde art to the American public. Lawyer and art collector John Quinn's social connections and financial support were essential in bringing about the 1913 Armory Show. An honorary member of that Association, Quinn held various roles within the artistic community—counsel, promoter, and patron.

Receipt for purchases from George W. Russell (Æ), which includes work loaned by QuinnReceipt for purchases from George W. Russell (Æ), which includes work loaned by QuinnThe Armory Show has often been cited as a turning point in the history of art. Comprised of nearly 1400 works, Americans who attended the show were introduced to nonrepresentational art which differed from the realist styles practiced domestically. Quinn himself lent a Cezanne, a Van Gogh, and a Gauguin to the show, as well as 74 other works from his private collection. The exhibition hung for only four weeks at the 69th Regiment Armory at 68 Lexington Avenue in New York, and then traveled to Chicago and Boston. Most of the foreign paintings were shown in all three cities. Traveling transformed the show into a national event, as it was seen by record-breaking numbers of people and widely commented on in popular press. To be involved with the conversation surrounding contemporary art, one needed to be familiar with the works in Armory Show.

Snapshot of John Quinn in Paris, 1922Snapshot of John Quinn in Paris, 1922Raised in Fostoria, Ohio by Irish immigrant parents, Quinn established his own law firm in New York in 1906. As he became more successful he began collecting both literature and art. The subject of his collecting stemmed from his Irish identity and interest in Irish culture. He supported Irish artists, writers, and playwrights financially, and developed social ties to activists in the Irish Home Rule movement and their artistic circles. Through Welsh artist Augustus John, Quinn was introduced to the English and Irish artists whose work formed the foundation of his early collection.

As Quinn became disillusioned with the Irish movement and felt a lack of reciprocal loyalty, he moved away from developing his collection socially and made more informed decisions with support from a network of art galleries and advisors. His focus shifted from works out of Great Britain to paintings and sculpture by artists active in Paris, who were more revered at the time—a shift which coincided with the Armory Show. His legal career facilitated his collecting of European art. Quinn repeatedly and successfully argued against import tariffs on artwork, the abolishment of which eased the movement of art across the Atlantic and fostered internationalism in the market.

Quinn's letters and letterbooks form part of the John Quinn papers held in the Manuscripts and Archives Division. Much of his activity related to the Armory Show is depicted in detail in this correspondence. He incorporated the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and was active in securing the space for the exhibition. Beginning in November of 1912, Quinn sent letters to his contacts in Europe to announce Arthur B. Davies' and Walt Kuhn's trips abroad to coordinate loans from European artists. Quinn was especially interested in promoting the work of English and Irish artists, to help their work find new patrons and to validate his own collection. As he wrote to Jack Knewstub of Chenil Gallery on November 17, 1912:

With this I am sending you a page from the New York Sun of Sunday, November 10th, from which you will see an account of a visit abroad of Arthur B. Davies, the President of the American Painters and Sculptors... for the purpose of collecting art for the International Exhibition of Contemporary Art to be held in the City February 15th to March 15th. I do not know whether you are familiar with Mr. Davies' work. He is an artist of great ability. The secretary of this Association is a personal friend of mine, Walt Kuhn. I incorporated the Association and am one of the honorary members. These men are honest, sincere men. I send this to you so that you may keep an eye out for Davies, and if you have any of the work of the young men you are interested in, you will be able to do what you can towards submitting their work. Here is a good chance for young artists on the other side to make their bow to New York.

Many works from Quinn's collection of Irish and English artists were included in the Armory Show, although a number were not accepted by the Association. As he reported to Knewstub, "The committee didn't take any of the Currie's, nor did they take any of the Gore's, nor any of the Nevinson's, or Gertler or Wadsworth. They took all the John's and fifteen John drawings. They took the Innes's and the Lee's, but none of the others [sic]."

Letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner, January 15, 1913Letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner, January 15, 1913As the opening approached, Quinn promoted the exhibition on behalf of the Association. He invited French and American political officials to the opening, and offered to escort prominent persons around the galleries himself. The Association's other honorary member, newspaperman Frederick James Gregg, was primarily responsible for press coverage. An interview with Quinn was published as "Modern art from a layman's point of view" in the Arts & Decoration special issue of March 13, which contained essays by several other Association members. He gave the opening speech, in which he called the show "epoch-making," and was active for the duration of its exhibition. He attended "almost every evening for from half an hour to an hour or two, that I could spare. It was a genuine refreshment to me. I never got tired of going around."

Excerpt of letter to Joseph Conrad, March 30, 1913Excerpt of letter to Joseph Conrad, March 30, 1913

According to Walt Kuhn's 1938 Story of the Armory Show, Quinn's early purchases stimulated other art patrons to begin collecting. "His purchase of between five and six thousand dollars worth of pictures reached the ears of Arthur Jerome Eddy… Eddy bought some of the most radical works in our show. Others followed suit." Many works of art purchased by individual collectors through the exhibition would eventually form the core modern collections of cultural institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

By looking at the work he bought, one can see Quinn's connoisseurship changing away from Great Britain to France and to Paris-based artists. Artists of the drawings, watercolors and lithographs purchased from the Armory Show include Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac, Jules Pascin, Pierre Girieud, Odilon Redon, Paul Signac, Renoir, Cezanne, and Gauguin. Quinn also bought sculptures by Manolo and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and oils by Andre Derain, Alexandre Blanchet, Redon, Girieud, Jacques Villard, and Eugene Zak. The exceptions are purchases made out of loyalty - a bronze by Sir Jacob Epstein, two oils by Walt Kuhn, and two watercolors by Edith Dimock.

Excerpt of letter to James Huneker, June 15, 1913Excerpt of letter to James Huneker, June 15, 1913

Through the end of his life, Quinn would proudly reference the Armory Show as exceptionally important, and frame his comments on other exhibitions in comparison.


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Brilliant! What a hero of the art of the 20th century. Gee. Could someone write a really good biography of him?!

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