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The Erratic Magpie

The Noble Buyer”: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde

by Judith Zilczer
Smithsonian Institution Press, 198 pp., $20.00

John Quinn—sixty years ago the name was widely known and commanded attention and respect in New York, Dublin, London, and Paris. Quinn was a successful lawyer, a patron of the arts who befriended the Yeats family and gave help to Pound, Eliot, and Joyce; and he became an avid collector of paintings. But today there are few who have heard more than the name, and none, apart from a few bibliophiles, some professors and curators, and one or two very aged art dealers, who know anything about his manifold activities in the world of modern letters and art. Quinn is thus a shadowy and forgotten figure, about whom nothing has been written for fifty years, except for a glib essay by Aline Saarinen in a silly book, The Proud Possessors, and a biography by Benjamin Reid, which was well researched and informative within the author’s own scope but contained no detailed account of Quinn’s literary and artistic activities and provided no checklist of the vast quantity of books, manuscripts, and assorted works of art with which he surrounded himself.

This omission has now been partially, though by no means satisfactorily, repaired, so far as Quinn’s art collection is concerned, by Judith Zilczer, a historical archivist employed by the Smithsonian Institution. Zilczer was commissioned to do research to establish as complete a listing as possible of every work of art which can be reliably shown to have belonged to Quinn, with a view to reconstituting as a temporary exhibition a fairly large sample of the original Quinn collection. The present slim volume contains her limited findings, a pathetically incomplete catalogue entry for each work and an introductory commentary which is flawed by misguided thinking, false notions, erratic judgment, and superficiality. The book is neither fully nor even adequately illustrated, since it served primarily as a catalogue for a token exhibition which turned out to be unrepresentative, and only a few additional choice pieces not shown are reproduced. The reader is thus left with a false idea of Quinn’s place among American collectors of the first quarter of the twentieth century, and is also denied the possibility of forming a valid conception of what John Quinn’s vast art collection really looked like when he was alive.

Zilczer states that between roughly 1908 and 1924, the year of his death at the age of fifty-four, Quinn managed to acquire “more than two thousand works of art,” of which she has identified barely half but has managed to trace five hundred to their present place of ownership. The exhibition consisted of a haphazard selection of only seventy-eight pieces, the finest and most characteristic being largely missing. In fairness to Quinn, every other identifiable work should have been illustrated, all the more so because Zilczer has not troubled to give any references either to standard oeuvre-catalogues or to other publications in which reproductions can be found.

But that would have frustrated Zilczer’s desire to misrepresent the evidence. In advance, she made up her mind that Quinn was an “audacious” collector and a “patron of the avant-garde”—that awful word again! It is now so debased through American overuse that it signifies little more than “gently daring,” “up-to-date,” and “chic.” In any case, it was never applicable to Quinn. Yet, for modish reasons, Zilczer has arbitrarily tailored the facts to match a preconceived design of ignoring Quinn’s real collection and attempting “to focus this exhibition on vanguard artists Quinn patronized during his mature years as an art collector.” She has thereby demolished all sense of the wide and puzzling range of the collection as a whole, of the uncertainty and inconsistency of Quinn’s taste and passing enthusiasms in the field of art, and (worse still) of the proportions that once existed between one element and another from which the collection derived its essential character.

True, Quinn bought a large number of fine and important sculptures and paintings by several major artists of the School of Paris between 1916 and 1924. But what about all those bad Derains, Dufys, Metzingers, Pascins, Laurencins, Hermine Davids, Vlamincks, Segonzacs, Duchamps, and Villons that went with them? They won’t fit under the glamorous generic label of audacious or avant-garde purchases, but on the other hand they must not be forgotten. And why has Zilczer nothing to say about those artists whose work was significantly not represented in the Quinn collection? Men like Léger, de Chirico, Klee, Mondrian, Laurens, Chagall, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Lipchitz, Feininger, Boccioni, and van Dongen, for example. They had more claim in those days to being considered vanguard artists than a very large number of those whose works Quinn consistently bought. The fact is that Quinn was neither an audacious nor an adventurous buyer. He always followed where others had led or allowed himself to be pushed into investing, as an adventure, in the work of yet another school or individual artist. That is how Quinn came to acquire his large holding of works from the School of Paris. Yet even in that field he did not venture far, because when he could have bought advantageously a major group of Cubist works at the Kahnweiler Sales in Paris in 1921-1923, Quinn never made any attempt to bid.

Quinn on his own was not a discoverer. He was even a relative late-comer on the modern art scene, for by 1918-1919 Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger, and several others were enjoying their first period of real success in Paris, while important collections of the latest types of art had already been formed in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia. Nor should we overlook the adventurous purchases which had been made by Arthur Jerome Eddy of Chicago before 1914, or the far more considerable acquisitions being made by Dr. Barnes of Philadelphia during the same years.

Quinn bought enormous numbers of works, but far less than a quarter of their number were outstanding or even interesting. It would be good and useful to know and see what they all were. However, to pretend that the School of Paris examples constituted the very essence of the Quinn collection is misleading and unfair. For these late acquisitions were no more than an unexpected complement to an already existing sizable collection dominated by large groups of works by Puvis de Chavannes, Augustus John, Derwent Lees, Innes, John B. Yeats, Jack B. Yeats, Walt Kuhn, Maurice Prendergast, and Charles Sheeler, as well as a few hundred specimens by artists of far lesser stature. Paris was but the final layer of sugar icing on top of a badly mixed and soggy cake.

Judith Zilczer’s concern with Quinn is quite recent and has arisen peripatetically out of her research for a doctoral thesis on the progressive adoption of modernism in America, among artists and collectors, during the decade following the Armory Show of 1913. In consequence, her approach to Quinn has always been founded on the illusion that his “art collection and his achievement as an art patron deserve careful reexamination in connection with the origins of modern art in this country.” But such terms are far too narrow to enable one to do justice to Quinn, who was first and foremost a man of his own time and not self-consciously concerned with promoting avant-garde modernism for its own sake.

Quinn’s American artist friends were all inclined toward modernism when he met them, he certainly never tried to convert anyone else, and we know that Quinn was not particularly interested in the direction taken by American art anyway. Nor did Quinn seek to impose modernism against the protest of the museum-going public: everything he owned was stacked or hung in his own apartment, where it remained largely concealed. He did not understand that people could be shocked or outraged by modern art, but he did not argue. Quinn had no inclination to proselytize, nor was he, as the Steins, Stieglitz, Walter Pach, and Arensberg on the other hand were, anxious to be “a leader of [an] aesthetic revolution.” Few people, apart from very close friends, were ever able to study the vast assemblage of works which Quinn owned: he never used his collection as an educational instrument, and only ventured to show some of it publicly when invited by the Metropolitan Museum in 1921 to contribute to its first major postimpressionist exhibition.

Quinn did not lecture or write on aesthetic matters, and avoided preaching the gospel of modernism. He lived privately and apart, pursuing his own tastes and enthusiasms, seeking no public recognition, but enjoying in solitude his personal possessions. So far as Quinn was concerned, it was immaterial whether America accepted or rejected avant-garde modernism, because either way it would not affect his own delectation. Quinn never felt that he had to justify his cultural position, nor did he seek vindication by the general public of whatever he liked and bought. Quinn bought things at “291,” but he was never one of the activists in Stieglitz’s coterie; similarly he played no part in the provocative manifestations through which Davies, Maurer, Pach, and Kuhn championed modernism in art. Quinn was only drawn into the organization of the Armory Show as legal adviser because he was known to the artists as a powerful lawyer with artistic interests. Nor did Quinn greatly modify his attitude in the last two years of his life, after he had become more involved with European art. He agreed to show a choice selection of fifty School of Paris paintings, several sculptures, and a big group of Vorticist works in two exhibitions during 1922 at the Sculptors’ Gallery, which was run by Arthur Davies. But by that time Matisse, Braque, Picasso, and the rest of the contemporary masters were accepted by a large body of informed opinion in America and Quinn had no desire to turn educator for the reactionary multitude.

John Quinn was surely a more complex, curious, civilized, and interesting human being than Judith Zilczer, with her unifocal vision, has any idea of. He was born in a township named Tiffin in Ohio in 1870 of recent Irish immigrant parents who owned a bakery. At an early age, encouraged by his schoolmaster, Quinn developed a love of literature and was persuaded to acquire first editions of books by his favorite authors. Next, at the age of eighteen, he was hired by the former state governor as a private secretary, and before long Quinn found himself in Washington, attached to the governor, who had been appointed secretary of the treasury. He enrolled for night classes in law at Georgetown University and then, after graduation, in 1893, Quinn moved on to Harvard to study international law. By 1895, his studies completed, Quinn was practicing in New York, while twelve years later he had won a reputation as a brilliant advocate, was renowned as a banking lawyer, was receiving a retainer from Thomas Fortune Ryan, and had founded a law firm of his own.

By the age of forty, therefore, Quinn was earning a considerable annual income and could afford to indulge a new-found pleasure both in things cultural and in political affairs. For as well as being a thinker, a great reader, and an art-lover, Quinn enjoyed being a man of action, enjoyed arguing with those who made the laws of the land. He had developed a strong attachment to his basic national heritage, took up the cause of Irish nationalism, then interested himself in contemporary Irish and English literature. This all led him to make several trips to Ireland and England between 1902 and 1905 during which he made friends with Lady Gregory, George Russell (known as AE), the Yeats family, J. M. Synge, Shaw, and others. A lively and extensive exchange of letters between Quinn and his new friends followed, which encouraged Quinn’s belief that they valued him as a patron of their work and looked to him to promote their interests in America. And he did. That was the origin of the first major enlargement, by books and manuscripts, of Quinn’s personal modern library.

In those days, of course, close bonds linked the creative circles in Dublin and London. As a result, Quinn found himself before long in easy companionship with leading writers, poets, and artists, both Irish and English, in London. So his library was enriched with more books and manuscripts from the pens of Conrad, Shaw, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, while he also launched into buying paintings and drawings by Gwen and Augustus John, Derwent Lees, Innes, and Conder, as well as sculpture by Epstein and, a bit later, Gaudier-Brzeska. By 1915, Quinn owned the largest collection anywhere of original works by Augustus John. That seems to knock out the theory that he was by nature a “dedicated modernist,” to quote another of Zilczer’s offensive clichés.

Then in 1915, under pressure from Pound, Quinn took up the artists of the recently expired Vorticist group in London, bought large numbers of their works, tried to secure all available sculptures by Gaudier, and made plans for a Vorticist show in New York. Once they had arrived, however, Quinn decided that he did not much like the Vorticist creations because they related too closely “to the Italian Futurists.” He kept them nonetheless. And at the end of 1923, when under pressure from Huneker and Pach to stop buying so rashly and in such large quantities, even to get rid of a great deal of the less good art he owned, Quinn dispatched most of his holdings by English artists, including nearly all his Augustus Johns, to London for disposal, though he retained nearly everything by Gwen John, Gaudier, and the Vorticists. These two episodes are very revealing of Quinn’s methods of patronage and collecting, of the vacillations of his taste and of his calculating spirit.

Quinn lent over seventy works to the Armory Show: thirty-six of these were by Augustus John and thirteen by Puvis de Chavannes, among the rest being a Cézanne portrait of the 1870s, a van Gogh Self-Portrait of 1887, a Cassatt, a tiny Goya, and a Gauguin of Tahiti, with a group of Innes, Lees, Yeats, Hone, Conder, and Epstein. Nothing terribly modern there. Nor were Quinn’s many purchases from the show more daring: works by Blanchet, Girieud, Mrs. Glackens, Segonzac, Manolo, Pascin, Zak, and Duchamp-Villon. However, the aesthetic experience of the Armory Show came as an eye-opener for Quinn. It took a few years to percolate through his mind, but afterward Quinn seems to have known that the artists of the School of Paris were the finest and most creative in the field of contemporary art. Despite the advice to get rid of much that he already owned and buy fewer but more important works, Quinn was incapable of being selective in his choice either of artists or of their works. Admittedly, at the end of his life, he owned some forty major works by Cézanne, Seurat, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, and Brancusi, but he was also holding a far larger quantity of truly minor stuff.

This consideration, apparently, was of little significance to Quinn because it was never his intention to put together a calculated package of textbook masterpieces destined ultimately to adorn the walls of some museum and to perpetuate his own name. For this reason, I cannot possibly share Abram Lerner’s pained sentiment, expressed in his foreword, that “it is one of the great misfortunes of twentieth-century collecting that John Quinn’s fabulous assemblage was not kept intact.” Equally, I would dispute Zilczer’s statement that John Quinn’s “impressive modern art collection” was the best testimony “to his aesthetic judgment.” That is what Quinn neither sought nor possessed. In fact, it was the coming of modern art to America—effected through the work of others—which gradually prompted Quinn to transfer his patronage to a different group of artists. That he bought a greater number of more spectacular, important works than other contemporary collectors had more to do with the better advice he received and the greater amount of money he was willing to invest than with the refinement of his own eye or taste.

Of course, the European modernist artists and those dealers whom Quinn patronized during his last years had reason to admire and be grateful to Quinn for his largess. But Quinn too had every reason to be grateful to them for the interest and prestige that accrued to himself personally through the presence of great modern works in his collection. As for the impact of this collection on home-produced art and the development of taste in America, Quinn never gave the matter a moment’s thought, ordered everything to be sold after his death, and left not a single bequest to any museum. He knew what he was doing, and why.

Quinn’s collection was for him an intimate souvenir of his dream life, not a scientifically calculated display of special achievements. In a letter of 1920 to Vollard, Quinn wrote, “…there is a satisfaction in feeling that in buying the work of living men and in helping them to live and to create one is in a sense a co-creator or a participant in the work of creation.” Several years later, Jeanne Robert Foster, his closest companion, added to this the comment that Quinn was “mad to mix with genius,” from whom he expected in return “a period of continuous intimacy.” Herein lies the real key to understanding Quinn’s motivation as patron and collector.

Quinn had an inner urge to a creativity which he had no ability to fulfill. He found his legal practice a drudge, yet he could not do without it because it provided the finance for his many forms of patronage in literature and art. Quinn was a good judge of literature on his own, but much less sure when art was involved. As a rule, his choices resulted from a blend of advice, personal emotion, and bounding enthusiasm. Quinn approached and judged writers and artists by their personalities: if he found them temperamentally sympathetic, he was ready to believe in the value of their work. After that, he would give concrete expression to his sentiments by acquiring one or more works, hoping that this opening gesture would lead subsequently to further patronage and greater intimacy between them.

Quinn was more affected, it seems, by the creative intention than by the final result. Thus any purchases he made were an expression of faith and hope, faith in the artist, hope in the future of his art. Yet Quinn was aspiring, at the same time, thereby to enhance that private network of human relationships from which he derived his most comforting emotional stimulation. It is in this light that we must regard the photographs of Quinn playing golf with Satie and Brancusi, or hobnobbing with the Picassos at home.

Quinn’s ability to form these close friendships evoked in him the response of a streak of idealism and of enlightened self-interest. For Quinn was quick to act, on more than one occasion, in using whatever influence he possessed as a renowned lawyer and friend of many politicians to take up the cudgels in defense not only of his writer or artist friends but also of all collectors of modern art. For it was Quinn who prevented the police from forbidding the performance in New York of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Quinn who defended Joyce’s Ulysses against charges of obscenity, and Quinn who fought the Congress first to secure the repeal of a high tariff on all imported works of art, and secondly to prevent the retention of this punitive tariff on every contemporary work of art. On all counts he won. Quinn thus proclaimed his belief in the importance for any great nation of keeping an open mind in regard to the artistic creations of the moment in order that its culture may survive as a living force. He also revealed how deeply he himself felt about the role of the arts as a civilizing factor in man’s life. His private possessions were silent witnesses to his faith in the creative genius of man.

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