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
John Quinn; drawing by David Levine

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.

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