PRINT November 1970

Teddy’s Taste

THE HISTORY OF THE ARTISTIC relations between America and Europe around the turn of the century is a tissue of clichés. Perhaps the most recalcitrant of these holds that, probably until the Armory Show of 1913, and surely at least until Alfred Stieglitz began to show modern European art in New York in 1908, this country was devoid of attitudes at all conducive to Post–Impressionistic developments and was simply ignorant of modernism in painting. I want to take up a single strand of this problem now, the way in which Theodore Roosevelt responded to the “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” as the Armory Show styled itself, and what his own esthetics were like.

What is it about Roosevelt that makes us smile? He has become the victim of a humiliating stereotype. Over the last half century the Silent Majority has taken T.R. to heart, reading what he wrote, perpetuating a few attitudes and poses that were never meant to be more than electioneering, and building in its mind the ideal of a chummy and––as Americans say, intending praise––ordinary guy. Teddy, as he hated to be called, was nothing of the sort. This man, who would probably never have invited Lyndon Johnson to dinner, let alone resembled him in any way, has lost our respect only because we have lost sight of the social context in which his actions took place.

In fact, it is unnecessary to go any deeper into his enormous literary production (nearly 200 articles in 1910–15 alone) than his most famous book, The Rough Riders, (1899) to see what the story really was. What The Rough Riders demonstrates, the enthusiasms of its large (voting) audience notwithstanding, is hardly the idea that the development of physical courage, or even moral strength, will make a man great. On the contrary, what it proves in every chapter, with each maneuver, drill, or command, is that (and perhaps this was apparent to a smaller, but more powerful, political readership) cultivated Eastern townsmen can do anything the roughnecks of the West can do plus a great deal more––govern, for example. In Roosevelt’s mind his men fall in two categories, never officers and enlisted men (and not good and evil; they are nearly all good), but always the civilized and the crude. Once, in the Cuban campaign, T.R. was isolated from those of his men who carried in their heads the furniture of civilization and, obliged to encamp with the rest, he moved his tent far from theirs, so as to maintain the distance necessary for the ready acceptance of orders by the less intelligent. I don’t want to dwell long on The Rough Riders, an amazingly timely book,1 except to underscore the fact that its real theme, and one around which Roosevelt built his life, is the problem of how to be a gentleman in a democracy, and how to justify the implicit superiority of cultivation with constructive social action. For T.R. as an individual, being a gentleman involved literature and––although to a lesser extent, still much more than for an English gent––art. In the first he was an accomplished practitioner. He believed, in fact, that the domain of literature should be extended over history and science: if it couldn’t be literature, whatever it was wasn’t worth writing.2 Van Wyck Brooks says somewhere that “a list of Theodore Roosevelt’s friends would virtually amount to a literary history of the period.” The surprise is that in art he had more interest and understanding than we have been led to expect.

The reason why Roosevelt comes into the art picture at all is that, after visiting the Armory Show on March 4, 1913, he wrote an essay, “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition,” for The Outlook of March 9th,3 recording his responses. This work has always received too summary treatment by art historians. John McCoubrey charitably grants T.R. an “honest bewilderment.”4 Milton Brown calls his article “both canny and ignorant.”5 I think, on the contrary, that it is more than canny, hardly ignorant.

First, Roosevelt’s supposed ignorance of art. Frederic Remington’s bronzes, as fine as they often are, are usually considered about T.R.’s speed. And at Sagamore Hill, his house at Oyster Bay, Long Island, he did collect a large corpus of Remington’s pieces. One of these, Remington’s most famous single sculpture, The Bronco Buster, was a present from his men on their return from Cuba, as a photograph of him accepting it, reproduced in The Rough Riders, proves. But he also had a good deal more. It is true that many works of art in his collection were gifts to him and his wife during and after his presidency, but it is also true that these include very fine pieces and that, in any case, this is a collection in the midst of which he was very comfortably at home at the time he visited the Armory Show. There is a fine Japanese ritual bronze, a large screen given by the Empress of Japan, and a really magnificent large black lacquer chest: all very Fenollosan. Two Piranesis hang in the entrance hall. There is a signed and dated (1647) drawing of a man’s head by the Roman Baroque master Pietro Testa. In the area of sublime landscape we notice Lucien W. Powell’s Evening, Grand Canyon and four pictures by one of Roosevelt’s favorite artists (whom we will encounter in his Armory Show review), Pinky Marcius–Simmons: The Porcelain Towers; Seats of the Mighty, given by his friend Lord Lee (two letters record how thrilled he was with the gift, which he had admired in England); Victory, which is inscribed “To Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt in Commemoration 1904” and is in a very Moreauean vein; and Where Light and Shadow Meet. There is also a fine picture (gift of Henry Clay Frick) by the Norwegian landscapist Frits Thaulow, City of Pittsburgh, which probably dates from the time of Thaulow’s appearance at the Carnegie International, 1897; its urban realism is not unlike John Sloan’s, a few years later. A weird landscape with figures, entirely in mosaic and composed of such tiny tesserae that it looks pointilliste, was the gift of Leo XIII (a man whose opposition to monopolistic capitalism curiously resembled Roosevelt’s). A set of six very large (over 30 inches high) bisque figurines, the gift of the French government commission which erected the Rochambeau statue in Lafayette Square, Washington, in 1902, present the tastefully opulent suavity (and the proto-Art Déco aspect) of turn-of-the-century art porcelain. And to return to Remington, there is, besides the bronzes, a rich, strong, pastel portrait of Geronimo.

During the years 1909–18 Colonel Roosevelt carried on a running feud with the American painter Abbott Thayer, over the question of the existence and supposed teleological purpose of protective coloration in nature.6 For us now, the most interesting aspects of the controversy are that Roosevelt criticized the plates in Thayer’s work on a visual–documentary basis, and that he also made a very advanced field observation which evidences a grasp of the total visual field of the problem which was quite out of Thayer’s reach. Of the plates he said that some were excellent “and undoubtedly put the facts truthfully and clearly; others portray as normal conditions which are wholly abnormal and exceptional, and are therefore completely misleading.”7 What T.R. was attacking, then, was nothing less than Thayer’s concètto. The field observation, extremely Post–Impressionist in its consideration of the “frame” of a situation as part of its “motif” and of the observer as an essential element in the visual encounter, occurred when Roosevelt, arguing against Thayer’s idea of “counter-shading” (and, much more practically, in favor of the importance of movement or lack of movement), remembered that in the bush he himself had not been noticed by an antelope and a zebra: “My neutral-tinted clothes, grey or yellow-brown, were all of one color, without any counter-shading; but neither the antelope nor the zebra saw me, and they would frequently pass me, or come down to drink, but thirty or forty yards off, without ever knowing of my presence.”8

So much for T.R.’s attitude toward culture, his respect for art, his exposure to Fenollosa and the ideas of Dow, and his own built-in visual esthetics. What about the Armory Show? Roosevelt’s review of it is as interesting for its asides and fragmentary judgments as for its famous key passage on Duchamp’s “Cubism.” He remarks, cleverly, I think, that “as for the human figures in the pictures of the Futurists, they show that the school would be better entitled to the name of the ‘Past-ists.’”

He sallies into a critic who said that Lehmbruck’s Femme à genoux (or Kneeling Woman, 1911; Museum of Modern Art) is “full of lyric grace,” “tremendously sincere,” and “of a jewel–like preciousness.” Apparently this comment has always been taken as an attack on the Kneeling Woman. It is not. All three phrases come from a pretentious essay by William Murrell Fischer, entitled “Sculpture at the Exhibition,” which appeared in the March 1913 number of Arts and Decoration. There Fischer pompously writes that “the purposeful exaggeration of The Kneeling One, by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, greatly accentuates the lyric grace of the female figure, while the pose is an inspiration,”9 and applies Roosevelt’s two other phrases to a “mask cut from a pebble by an unknown artist.” So, although T.R. makes a bit of a mistake, he is revealed as both an enemy of stupid writing and also as a reader of Arts and Decoration.

He also mentions what he particularly likes in the exhibition, although here it is necessary to remember that he deliberately––out of real humility and respect––refrains from treating Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Monet, Augustus John, Cézanne, and Redon: “a worthy critic should speak of these.” He does like some of the things we always thought he would, like Kate T. Cory’s Arizona Desert, Leon Dabo’s Canadian Night, and Amos Chew’s plaster Pelf. And he also likes “the very unexpected pictures of Sheriff Bob Chandler”; these very remarkable works, by Robert W. Chandler he finds “first–class [N.B.] decorative work of an entirely new type.” He singles out “a little group called ‘Gossip’, which has something of the quality of the famous fifteenth idyl of Theocritus” (thoughts like these charged San Juan Hill!), which may or may not be Herbert Crowley’s drawing Slander. And of course he liked Emile Antoine Bourdelle’s Herakles Archer bronze; who wouldn’t? He mentions “studies for the Utah monument,” meaning Mahonri Young’s reliefs Founding of the Commonwealth and Arrival of the Seagulls, for the Sea Gull Monument at Salt Lake City. He mentions Terminal Yards, by Leon Kroll, as “one of the most striking pictures,” one which “one would like to possess”; “the seeing eye was there, and the cunning hand.”10

Definitely an all–American selection, yes, but he explains: “In some ways it is the work of the American painters and sculptors which is of most interest in this collection, and a glance at this work must convince anyone of the good that is coming out of the new movements, fantastic though many of the developments of these new movements are.” In the light of this, we warm to his attraction to John Sloan and George Luks, Sloan in his famous Sunday, Girls Drying Their Hair and Luks in his Ten [pencil] Studies in the Bronx Zoo. And Roosevelt even adds one favorite artist whom he wishes had been included in the Armory Show, Pinky Marcius–Simmons (1867–1909), an American who painted a Niebelungenring cycle at Bayreuth, and whose fantastic Swan Song,11 weirdly “Post–Impressionist” in its inclusion of a framing border (of scenery) within the boundaries of the picture proper, was shown in the Paris Salon of 1893.

But T.R.’s most famous criticism is a negative one, his almost Vorticist bombardment of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The attack is embedded in an extended passage which it is necessary to quote in full because it is this very section of Roosevelt’s essay that has become the focus of attention for art historical generalization about T.R. and his taste. He writes:

The Cubists are entitled to the serious attention of all who find enjoyment in the colored puzzle–pictures of the Sunday newspapers. Of course, there is no reason for choosing the cube as a symbol, except that it is probably less fitted than any other mathematical expression for any but [N. B.] the most formal decorative art. There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another. Take the picture which for some reason is called “A Naked Man Going Down Stairs.” There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory [N. B.] decorative picture. Now, if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, “A Well–Dressed Man Going Up a Ladder,” the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the “Naked Man Going Down Stairs.” From the standpoint of terminology each name would have whatever merit inhered in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of [N. B.] decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture.

Let us take up these thoughts of Roosevelt’s one at a time. We cannot hold him responsible for his unhistorical, uncategorical working definition of Cubism; for one thing, in the Armory Show itself a 16th–century Italian drawing, probably by Luca Cambiasco, was exhibited as an “Early Cubist Study.” But the picture puzzle reference is not too far off base: for years John Sloan earned cash by drawing picture-puzzles for the Philadelphia Press, and, since Sloan was evidently still turning these out as late as 1912,12 it is not impossible that Roosevelt had them explicitly in mind; in any case, it is a defect of many Cubist works that, like picture puzzles, they suffer from an inelegant over–complexity and a pedestrian and quasi-verbal challenge to decipherment.

The facetious treatment of the term “Cubist” may indeed reveal an ignorance of the art–critical origin of that term (although it was initially derisive and facetious anyway), but in the wake of Madame Blavatsky, and in the context of petit–bourgeois American, “Kingfisher”-type Freemasonry, Roosevelt did well to suspect, not knowing anything about it as a word, that it might hide a phony profundity.

As far as “A Naked Man Going Down Stairs” is concerned, this, I think, more than any other single detail in T.R.’s essay, has turned criticism against him and made him appear “ignorant.” It seems so ignorant just to refer to Duchamp’s picture that way, whatever else is said about it. But in the actual exhibition the work was called by the French title Nu descendant un escalier. When the Armory Show went to Chicago and Boston this was translated, but even then not into the exact title as we know it, but rather into Nude Figure Descending a Staircase. “Naked Man Going Down Stairs” is the somewhat idiosyncratic, but accurate, translation by the Rough Rider himself. Roosevelt’s difficulty in analytically viewing the picture is a more serious matter. He simply fails to see what for us today is a perfectly obvious narrative motif. This, however, is nothing more than the unfamiliarity of what, to an admitted layman, and surely to almost everyone else at the time, was an unexpected and alien way of making an image.

It is the comparison with his bathroom rug that grants us some insight into his capabilities and sophistication. T.R. ’s remark goes far beyond the similar one made by Kenyon Cox, “A Turkish rug or a tile from the Alhambra is nearly without representative purpose, but it has intrinsic beauty and some conceivable human use”13––far beyond Cox, into the realm of Fry and Bell. Roosevelt needs no utilitarian apology for formal beauty; in fact, what he seems to be after is pure decorative value. And in so doing, he calls to mind that special White House lecture, ten years before, in which he was introduced to the planar, abstract, compositional, decorative ideal stressed––in missionary fashion––all over the United States by Arthur Dow and his friends, disciples, and students. So real was Roosevelt’s appreciation of these values that his collection at Sagamore Hill includes a number of truly superb Indian rugs and blankets (including Geronimo’s own which, admittedly, would be there even if it were ugly). These are beautiful pieces, besides being just the kind of thing Dow pushed in his efforts to establish an American Post–Impressionistic frame of mind in the early years of the 20th century.

The problem of “Cubism,” and specifically of Theodore Roosevelt’s possible mis–apprehension of it, really pales before the problem of positing a trans–Atlantic spirit of Post–Impressionism, in which he shared, one less radical or newsworthy here than in Europe, but perhaps as real and as progressive. If less significant in its production, in quantity or magnitude, of significant monuments, this movement will probably prove to have been much vaster and all–embracing in its social effect, thanks to its consciously democratic pedagogical program. And the question of Cubism and the reception of the Armory Show as it is usually framed, is probably, at any rate, entirely misleading.14 Not long after this, Blaise Cendrars hailed Dada as the new “trans–Atlantic art” and called it “the people rejoice star” which was “hurled upon the Cubist tinkle–dance.” As I see it, if Roosevelt preferred a Navajo rug to a Cubist painting (even if an uncharacteristic or unorthodox example), and especially for Post–Impressionist reasons, more power to him. Post–Impressionism was the doughnut, Cubism just the hole, and Teddy was “right on.”

Joseph Masheck



1. One time Roosevelt and his men were in a perfect spot to kill a lot of Spaniards, but he refused to fire because he could not be certain that they were not actually Cubans.

2. Theodore Roosevelt, “ History as Literature,” in his History as Literature and Other Essays (New York, 1913), pp. 3–36.

3. Reprinted under the title “An Art Exhibition,” ibid., pp. 303–10.

4. John McCoubrey, American Art, 1700–1900; Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968), p. 188.

5. Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show (New York, 1963), p. 118. While I do not entirely subscribe to Professor Schapiro’s view of the Show (Meyer Schapiro, “Rebellion in Art,” in Daniel Aaron, ed., America in Crisis [New York, 1952], pp. 203–42), particularly on the question of the supposed triviality of the “decorative” bias of the time, it must be acknowledged that his editor did him a disservice by making it appear, in the prefatory blurb (p. 102), that Schapiro believes that Roosevelt felt shaken by the “subversiveness” of the exhibition. In actual fact Roosevelt’s use of the term “extremism” is conservative, but no more so than Wyndham Lewis’s, for example, and Schapiro’s own characterization of Roosevelt’s review is “critical, though not unfriendly” (p. 211).

6. For the bibliography of the dispute, see Roosevelt, Works (National Edition), Vol. V, Through the Brazilian Wilderness and Papers on Natural History (New York, 1926), p. 317.

7. Roosevelt, “ Protective Coloration,” ibid., pp., 323–49; here, p. 346n.

8. Ibid., p. 335.

9. William Murrell Fischer, “Sculpture at the Exhibition,” Arts and Decoration, Vol. III (1912–13), pp. 168f.

10. It might be argued that Roosevelt could have been personally or politically predisposed in favor of “The Eight.” William Glackens had been at San Juan Hill, making finished drawings for McClure’s Magazine and quick sketches for the New York World; see Ira Glackens, William Glackens and the Ashcan Group (New York, 1957), pp. 23–27, with illus. of a drawing, El Pozo; Just Before the Engagement, July 1, 1898, and two paintings, The Night After San Juan and Field Hospital; July 1, 1898 (the Night After San Juan). And then, in 7908, “The Eight” got involved in the movement supporting a third presidential term for Theodore Roosevelt, calling themselves the “Theodore III Club,” although this was largely an effort to help one of the members, Everett Shinn, make money with a puzzle he had designed—a thin, flat disc with a celluloid cover, showing Roosevelt’s face, with two BBs that could be rolled into T.R.’s bulging eyes; see ibid., pp. 105–12, and John Sloan, John Sloan’s New York Scene; from the Diaries, Notes and Correspondence 1906–1913 (New York, 1965), p. 217, entry for May 5, 1908; J. Norman Lynd ’s cartoon Headquarters of “The Eight’s” Theodore III Club, for the New York Herald, May 17, 1908, is reproduced in Glackens, William Glackens, on p. 107. But these circumstances, while they may well have served to bring “ The Eight” to Roosevelt’s initial attention, (only about three months after they first exhibited at the Macbeth Galleries) cannot have motivated his thoughts at the Armory Show, for he mentions neither Glackens nor Shinn.

11. Illus., Gaston Jollivet, Goupil’s Paris Salon 1893, trans. Henry Bacon (Paris and New York, n. d.), pl. opp. p. 82.

12. Sloan, New York Scene, p. 599, entry for February 7, 1912.

13. Kenyon Cox, “ The Modern Spirit in Art; Some Reflections Inspired by the Recent International Exhibition,” Harper’s Weekly, March 15, 1913, p. 10, in McCoubrey, American Art, pp. 193–96; here, p. 194.

14. Interestingly, while we normally associate Gertrude Stein with Cubism, not only for her close association with Picasso in Paris, but also for her prose–poetic book on him, Mabel Dodge wrote an essay on Stein’s writing called “Speculations or Post–Impressionism in Prose” for Arts and Decoration’s March 1913 issue (loc. cit., pp. 172, 174). There she says that Gertrude’s Stein’s style is like Picasso because, read aloud, and Jetting reason sleep for a moment, you notice; “’It is a fine pattern!’” (Italics on “is”, Mabel Dodge’s; on “pattern,” mine).