PRINT October 1978

John Quinn: The New York ‘Stein’

I do not think that the Change is so much in the Pictures as in the Opinions of the Public.
—William Blake1

NOW THAT THE TERM “avant-garde” in relation to current art has almost as much impact as the word “natural” on a box of corn flakes, one must look with a certain knowing nostalgia to the period from 1900 to the Depression, when in regard to art it still had something of its original military and political connotations. At that time a very small group of American collectors, through a combination of taste, foresight and buying power, gave their patronage to a small group of artists working in Europe. In a very practical way, they helped these artists continue with work that would later define, for the majority of knowledgeable persons, the fundamental objectives of artistic expression for the first half of this century. One such collector was John Quinn, a New York lawyer of Irish extraction who was born in Ohio in 1870. Quinn was a man with the vast energies and deep-seated antagonisms of the self-made professional. Although he had begun collecting earlier, from the time he served as legal counsel for the Armory Show in 1913 to the time of his death of cancer in 1924, Quinn assembled one of the most important, and prescient, collections of European avant-garde art ever to be formed in America.

A summer exhibition (through September 4) at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington documented the collection of John Quinn, and reassembled for the first time a selection of 78 of the more than 2,000 objects he once owned. Entitled “‘The Noble Buyer’: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde,” the exhibition derives its name from the characterization made by his friend, the Irish painter Jack Yeats, describing Quinn’s role as collector and enthusiast. It was organized with painstaking care by Judith Zilczer, historian at the Hirshhorn, who is also responsible for the handsomely illustrated and admirably researched catalogue.

It was an impressive exhibition. Among the works shown were seven Matisses, including the celebrated Blue Nude, loaned to the Armory Show by Leo Stein and acquired by Quinn in 1920; La Musique, another painting once owned by the Steins; and a vibrant still-life of Cyclamen.There were six Picassos, ranging from the earliest, Reclining Nude from 1901, when he was still strongly influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, to two works of 1906: La Toilette, a rosy Neoclassical study; and Two Nudes, a pair of chunky women with Africanized features, to a Cubist Still-life of a table from 1915. Seven Brancusis appear, including The Sleeping Muse, and a Hand of Mademoiselle Pogany in yellow marble, given to Quinn by the artist as a token of friendship. There were six sculptures by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, including two versions of his famous Rooster, and a cast of The Horse. Plus the 1911 Nude Descending a Staircase No. 1 by his brother Marcel Duchamp. There were two sculptures by the French-born English Vorticist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and a drawing by Wyndham Lewis, his fellow Vorticist, as well as an early Epstein. There were three Derains, a Redon, a van Gogh Self-Portrait and a splendid Cézanne portrait of his wife.

There were also a number of things one could do without, including a large, pretentious painting by Augustus John, On the Way Down to the Sea, which is normally exiled to Phillips Exeter Academy; an enormous, embarrassing oil by Maurice Prendergast, entitled Picnic, that looks like the backdrop for a suburban high-school production of Our Town; a fluffy Marie Laurencin of noseless women floating about in a contrived woodland setting. And, for my money, there was Brancusi’s Kiss, which may be the worst thing he ever did, and the closest that modernist art comes to Castro-convertible showroom kitsch.

Also, there can be no doubt that the show’s esthetic impact was diminished by the perhaps unavoidable absence of a number of the vedettes of the Quinn collection—things that he referred to as “star pieces”2. Missing was Quinn’s last acquisition, Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, now a landmark at the Museum of Modern Art. Also missing was Seurat’s Le Circque, now in the Jeu de Paume, as well as Quinn’s other major Seurats, La Poudreuse and Les Poseuses. Absent also were Picasso’s celebrated, if maudlin, Blue Period painting The Blind Guitarist, Duchamp-Villon’s sculpture of the hairless Baudelaire, and Brancusi’s white marble Mademoiselle Pogany, of 1912. This deficiency is somewhat mitigated by the inclusion of photographs of these (often sizeable) as works in the catalogue. Yet it is unfortunate that a greater number of works that are both important and familiar were not able to be included in a show that is clearly designed to impress Quinn’s importance as a connoisseur upon a wide audience.

Due to Quinn’s personality, and the way in which he collected and held his collection, it is difficult enough to present him accessibly. Aside from economic support for, and loans of objects to, exhibitions—notably the 1913 Armory Show (to which he loaned 79 pieces and from which he was the initial and principal buyer) and the Metropolitan’s first exhibition to show Post-Impressionist art, in 1921—Quinn did not regularly display his collection. And there would seem to be no photographs of him with the artworks he took such pains to acquire and conserve—unlike the Steins who were regularly photographed with their holdings, exuding the self-congratulation of big-game hunters. Very few people were allowed access to Quinn’s artworks. Horace Brodzky, an artist and one of the biographers of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, gave an embittered account of Quinn’s behavior (certainly somewhat tainted by Quinn’s indifference to Brodsky’s work): “Quinn however was ‘difficult.’ . . . Except at the end of his life, John Quinn used to refuse to let others see his collection, or only allow it under the most exacting and difficult stipulations, as visiting artists will remember. His collection was housed in an apartment in Central Park West—the paintings turned to the wall in huge stacks, while the sculpture was covered with sheets.”3

Quinn was difficult in other ways too. His monomaniacal allegiance to French avant-garde art enabled him to assemble a collection that was astounding in quality as well as size, but he was a perfectionist and a man of strong views whose prejudices were as intense as his enthusiasms. Indeed, he seems to have had a veritable Rolodex stuffed with personal biases. Due to the demands of his law practice, which kept him in New York, Quinn bought much of his collection through agents in Europe, often by means of photographs. These men included Ezra Pound and the man dubbed “the great introducer” by Leo Stein, Henri Pierre Roché. Quinn’s correspondence with both of them is very revealing of his dislikes.

When Roché suggested that Quinn might be favorably impressed by the vitality of German art of that period, he replied, “You say ‘There is a very intense and marked movement.’ You do not say movement of what. I would like to have a ‘very marked and intense movement’ of Germans to hell or the Argentine or the headwaters of the Amazon in Brazil or the Sahara desert. . . . I make fun of their pretenses to be supermen, and I shall continue to hate them as long as I live.”4 Of women artists he wrote: “Most woman artists seem to want to paint like men, and they only succeed in painting like hell.”5

Yet as an ally and an advocate, he had the influence, the energy and the means to do much for any cause that he took on, and he was always taking on causes. His interest in Irish Home Rule and the Irish literary revival led him to visit Ireland in 1902, where he met and befriended most of the leading figures of the movement. Quinn’s acquaintance with the Yeats family led him to buy his first paintings (Jack Yeats and his father, John Yeats, were both painters), and he helped to defend Lady Gregory’s Irish Players when they came to America in 1911 and their controversial production of J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World was threatened by court action in Boston and Philadelphia. He helped to support both James Joyce and T.S. Eliot by buying their manuscripts (he once owned the manuscripts for Ulysses and “The Waste Land”). Quinn was also interested in English art, and it was through his acquaintance with Augustus John that he was introduced to French art—beginning with Cézanne and the work of the post-Impressionists. From there it was but a short step to the work of the French avant-garde—Matisse, Picasso, and Derain.

Perhaps the turning point for Quinn as a collector came with the Armory Show in 1913, an exhibition that began with the concept of offering exposure to American artists and ended up as a Trojan Horse bringing European modernist art within the purview of the American public. Quinn served as legal counsel for the American Association of Painters and Sculptors, which organized the show, and he was among the exhibition’s lenders. As a figure of some political stature and an eloquent orator, Quinn was chosen to deliver the opening speech, in which he described the show as the greatest exhibition of modern art ever held in America or even in Europe. Although the Armory Show produced a sensation in the press, and was probably the most controversial foreign import until the Concorde, Walt Kuhn believed that it was Quinn’s purchase of the first works from the show that provided the impetus to collectors and made it a financial success.6 At the close of the show in New York, one of the artists proposed a jeering toast to the conservative Academy of American Design. Quinn countered with “No, no! Don’t you remember Captain John Philip of the Texas? When his guns sank a Spanish ship at Santiago, he said, ‘Don’t cheer, boys, the poor devils are dying.’” Even the American artists who had arranged the show were disconcerted by the upstaging they suffered. The appreciation of art in America, and especially in New York, would never be the same.

As a partisan of European avant-garde art, Quinn’s testimony before Congress in 1913 was essential to the repeal of the 15 percent import duty imposed on art less than 20 years old. Here are some excerpts from his published plea:

The exclusive study and reproduction of the methods of the past, of the ideals and styles of the past, is the government of the living by the dead.

Art is subject to the eternal law of change. We want the art of today, charged with radium, the vitality, the electricity, the virility and the power of living things, as contrasted with the too-often dead and faded-out art, no matter how old it is or what great name is attached to it.

American art needs the stimulus and the shock that the study of foreign contemporary art will give it.7

In spite of the repeated protests that he was not a rich man (which pepper much of his later correspondence), Quinn bought extensively for the rest of his life. In 1923 he even sold most of his collection of books and manuscripts to gain the means to buy more art. On his infrequent trips to Europe, Quinn visited the artists whose works he admired, including Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi. He corresponded with Brancusi, who became his friend. In June of 1921 Quinn wrote, “Some people might say that I should have been content with only one example of the Bird and Mademoiselle Pogany either in marble or in bronze, but my reply would be that one can’t have too much of a beautiful thing.”8 In another letter, dated September 10, 1922, Quinn reveals his rather idealized view of artists:

Artists may not accumulate much money, they may not have houses and automobiles, but they ought to have peace of mind and a better chance of happiness than most people. The real artist creates, or tries to create, beautiful things. The work of the musician, the painter, the sculptor and the poet is an end in itself, done chiefly for the pleasure of doing it and the satisfaction of creating beautiful things. What they get for it is but the means to that end.9

This would imply that a part of the motivation for Quinn’s patronage was to provide the means for artists to realize their creations.

Needless to say, art patrons with such enlightened self-interest have been few. Quinn was not a speculator in art. Once Roché suggested that Quinn should buy the works of Paul Klee because he anticipated that they would quickly increase in value. Quinn wrote back “I shall certainly not buy merely because you foresee a rapid rise in the prices. I never bought with that end in mind. I never sold a painting.”10 His personal feeling for the artists he knew was sincere and concerted. His friend, the critic Forbes Watson, wrote,

To hear Brancusi describe his first and only game of golf with Quinn is to realize that the eminent collector was too vigorous to be satisfied humanly by the limitations of impersonal esthetic intercourse. I feel that the human side of his collection and its broad-mindedness were greatly strengthened by the fact that John Quinn did not maintain towards the artists the position of the celebrated patron. They were his friends and he was one of them. And as he himself once said to me, he felt that his friendships with the artists were by no means the smallest part of his collection.11

Quinn was fascinated by the art of his own time, and the men who created it. His companion and confidante of the later years of his life, Jeanne Roberts Foster, described him as a man who was “mad to mix with genius.”12

The first sign of Quinn’s ultimately fatal illness was an intestinal obstruction that was removed in 1918, with an apparently clear prognosis. But from the time of this illness, Quinn began to refine and to reduce the range of his collection, mainly to pieces by French artists and to those that he felt were of museum quality. In May of 1920 he wrote Henri Roché: “I only care to acquire important examples of the works of artists I am interested in. I have done far too much buying of tentative and experimental work and unimportant things, for different reasons—to encourage the artists, or to help them or because they needed the money, etc.”13 Later, in another letter: “Collecting art requires great patience . . . It isn’t a case of buying so many works of an artist, but of buying, or having the patience to buy, only the best.”14 In the spring of 1924, it became apparent that Quinn’s cancer had metastasized, and he died of it July 24, 1924.

At his death, Quinn left explicit instructions that his collection be sold. With the exception of Seurat’s Le Circque, which he bequeathed to the Louvre, and two paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, which he specified be offered for sale to the Metropolitan (which bought them), it was his wish that the objects he had acquired in his relatively brief, intense career as a collector be auctioned—the proceeds of the sale to be given to his sister and her heir, since Quinn had never married.

Those who knew Quinn intimately felt the tragedy of this plan. In October of 1924, Jeanne Roberts Foster published in the Transatlantic Review an impassioned “plea” to the executors of Quinn’s estate, in the hope of preventing its reckless dispersal. She closed with the caustic words, “The grief and shame of the few art-lovers who knew Mr. Quinn’s collection and loved it for its own sake as well as his, will be unmeasured, if his life-work is given to the harpies of the art game, or tossed for a mere trifle to the art morons of America.”15 In his forward to the catalogue that was hastily prepared to provide some lasting testament to Quinn’s achievement as a collector, Forbes Watson wrote, “This catalogue will offer the student of art material for study which if not assembled now would be scattered forever. He will find in it reproductions of a large number of the most significant works of art created during this period. It is for this reason and for the purpose of making a permanent record of an aesthetically and historically important collection that this catalogue is made.”16 In January 1926 a “Memorial Exhibition of Representative Works Selected from the John Quinn Collection” was held at the Art Center in New York. In October of that year, some of the French pieces were auctioned at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris; and in February of 1927, the rest of the collection was sold at auction in New York. And that was that. As the provenances in Ms. Zilczer’s catalogue demonstrate, many important collections profited from the Quinn sale; but with the exception of knowing dealers and collectors, for whom the provenance “John Quinn Collection” still held indisputable cachet, for nearly 30 years the world at large forgot about John Quinn as a patron of art.

Then, in 1958, Aline Saarinen’s The Proud Possessors was published.17 In this book, which documents a number of important American art collectors, Saarinen devoted a chapter to Quinn, ranking him as a collector of avant-garde art with the Steins (whose bohemian reputation, of course, had survived their collection). In doing so, she provided sufficient material to whet the appetites of scholars. In 1968, B.L. Reid published his exhaustive study of Quinn, The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends, largely based on the correspondence in the John Quinn Memorial Collection housed in the New York Public Library. But the show at the Hirshhorn is the first full-scale demonstration of Quinn’s major and varied contributions to the appreciation of modern art in America to be held in a museum setting.

In 1970 an exhibition with a similar intention was held, with far less risk. As a love-letter to the New York modern art establishment, and to the patrons who had provided the means to purchase a large number of objects from the original Stein collection then remaining in private hands, the Museum of Modern Art staged “Four Americans in Paris—The Collection of Gertrude Stein and Her Family,” an exhibition that reassembled much of the enormously influential collection formed in Paris by the emigré Steins. Without this sort of edge, the Quinn show at the Hirshhorn (a museum that is itself a tribute to the patronage of a single man) has, from an esthetic standpoint, succeeded in reestablishing a place for John Quinn in the network of American collections that helped to form the taste for avant-garde art, with a limited but representative selection of the collection, supplemented by a solid, scholarly catalogue. The exhibition’s installation closed with a panel of photographs of works whose whereabouts are still unknown, leaving one with the sense that, in a very positive light, there is still more to be discovered about the collection and influence of “the man from New York.”



1. William Blake, The Complete Writings, (Ed. Geoffrey Keynes), London, 1966. p. 450 (Blake refers to the fading of Reynold’s pictures in his annotations to Reynolds Discourses).

2. John Quinn in a letter to Henri Pierre Roché, September 17, 1919. (All letters courtesy John Quinn Memorial Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library—Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.)

3. Horace Brodzky, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, London, 1933, pp.97–98.

4. Quinn in a letter to Roché, September 24, 1920, p. 4.

5. Quinn to Roché, same letter as above, p. 2.

6. Walt Kuhn, The Story of the Armory Show, New York, 1938, p. 19.

7. John Quinn, A Plea for Untaxed Contemporary Art; Memorandum in Regard to the Art Provisions of the Pending Tariff Bill, New York, June 1913 (Association of American Painters & Sculptors, Inc.).

8. Quinn in a letter to Constantin Brancusi, May 22, 1921.

9. Quinn in a letter to Constantin Brancusi, September 10, 1922.

10. Quinn in a letter to Roché, September 24, 1920.

11. John Quinn Collection of Paintings, Water Colors, Drawings and Sculpture, Huntington, N.Y., 1926 (forward).

12. Jeanne Roberts Foster in a letter to Aline Saarinen dated February 22, 1960: cited by Judith Zilczer in “The Noble Buyer”: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde, Washington. D.C., 1978, p. 39.

13. Quinn in a letter to Roché, May 12, 1920, p. 9.

14. Quinn in a letter to Roché, September 24, 1920, pp. 2–3.

15. Reprinted in The Noble Buyer, pp. 58–61; here, p. 61.

16. John Quinn Collection, foreword.

17. Aline Saarinen, The Proud Possessors, New York, 1958.