Forces for the new: Collectors and the 1913 Armory Show

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2013 |

Fig. 14. Self-Portrait by van Gogh, c. 1887. Oil on canvas, 15 ¾ by 13 ⅜ inches. Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, gift of Philip L. Goodwin in memory of his mother, Josephine S. Goodwin.

On February 17, 1913, the most important art event ever held in America-the International Exhibition of Modern Art, quickly abbreviated to the “Armory Show” on account of its location in the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street-opened its doors. Because of its huge scope (nearly every progressive tendency in Europe and America was represented) and implications (the inevitability of aesthetic revolution, the legitimate claim of the avant-garde to a great tradition, and the demonstration that American artists were roughly twenty-five years behind their European counterparts), the Armory Show and its aftermath forever transformed the course of art in America. This year, two major exhibitions will celebrate the Armory Show’s one hundredth anniversary: the New-York Historical Society will examine the epochal episode and its impact on art and culture, and the Montclair Art Museum in NewJersey will focus on the Americans in the exhibition.

Artists created, organized, and brought off the gigantic undertaking that was the Armory Show, but pioneering collectors also played vital roles. They too became generative forces who helped transform public taste in the process of reshaping their own. They were instrumental in creating the climate in which avant-garde painting and sculpture were not only established in the marketplace, but were also dignified as a legitimate field of connoisseurship and study.Artists created, organized, and brought off the gigantic undertaking that was the Armory Show, but pioneering collectors also played vital roles. They too became generative forces who helped transform public taste in the process of reshaping their own. They were instrumental in creating the climate in which avant-garde painting and sculpture were not only established in the marketplace, but were also dignified as a legitimate field of connoisseurship and study.

Artists created, organized, and brought off the gigantic undertaking that was the Armory Show, but pioneering collectors also played vital roles. They too became generative forces who helped transform public taste in the process of reshaping their own. They were instrumental in creating the climate in which avant-garde painting and sculpture were not only established in the marketplace, but were also dignified as a legitimate field of connoisseurship and study.

Avant-garde collecting before the Armory Show

The collectors who shared the insurgent artists’ sense of mission were part of a small but forward-looking coalition that had arisen before 1913. In December 1911, frustrated by the paucity of modern art in big New York exhibitions, the painters Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, Elmer MacRae, Jerome Myers, and Henry Fitch Taylor decided to organize an exhibition of their own. After several meetings, these and other like-minded artists banded together as the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Their aim was to assemble what would become the Armory Show.1

Once the AAPS was in existence, it had to be recognized as a legal entity. The association was incorporated by the group’s pro bono legal advisor and most avid supporter, John Quinn (Fig. 3a). Quinn would amass an unsurpassed collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and European art. At its zenith, the collection contained over twenty-five hundred works of art, including more than fifty paintings by Picasso, nineteen by Matisse, eleven by Georges Seurat, and twenty-seven sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, as well as important works by Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, André Derain, Juan Gris, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Georges Rouault, Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin.

A corporation lawyer who began collecting books and prints about 1900,2 Quinn became a wealthy man from his legal practice. His career failed to fulfill him, but it did enable him to pursue his interests in art and literature. In 1909, while abroad, Quinn met the Welsh artist Augustus Edwin John, who introduced him to French art. By 1911 Quinn’s curiosity about modern art had been ignited by reports of Manet and the Post-Impressionists, the ground-breaking exhibition organized by Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries in London.3 In February 1911 Quinn resolved to acquire works by the painters whom Fry had identified as the big three progenitors of the new: Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin. He began protracted negotiations to obtain canvases by those artists from the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard.4

One of Quinn’s close friends was Frederick James Gregg, the art critic for the NewYork Sun. Gregg was in charge of publicity for the upcoming Armory Show, and apparently he informed Quinn about it. On July 1, 1912, Quinn incorporated the association and, from then on, he was in the AAPS’s inner circle and in the thick of their plans. He signed the lease for the armory building, gave interviews and speeches, sponsored a dinner, and stopped by the show almost daily.

Quinn was not the first American to discover or buy important examples of modern art. He was preceded by nearly a decade by the Stein family (see Fig. 2). Gertrude Stein and her brother, the writer, painter, and aesthetician Leo Stein, lived together in Paris from 1903 until 1914. Their oldest brother and his wife, Michael and Sarah Samuels Stein (1870-1953), followed them to Paris in 1904.5 In 1904 Leo Stein, who started his and his sister’s collection, purchased paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, and Maurice Denis; a year later, he bought Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), which defined the entire family’s collecting for years to come. Indeed, Michael and Sarah Stein went on to become Matisse’s steadfast friends and patrons. The Steins’ contribution to the Armory Show took the form of the major loans they made: two Picasso still lifes and Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress (Fig. 5), Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (Fig. 6), and La Coiffure (1907; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart).

Albert C. Barnes (Fig. 3b) was the only other collector on American shores who rivaled Quinn in voracity. Barnes eventually accumulated hundreds of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, and Picassos. He also bought numerous paintings and works on paper by Chaim Soutine, William Glackens, Charles Demuth, Maurice Prendergast, and Marsden Hartley. A Philadelphia native, Barnes took a medical degree, but never practiced. He then studied chemistry, psychology, and pharmacology. He and another chemist developed an antiseptic eye-drop solution that would prevent infant blindness, which they called Argyrol. Within two years of Argyrol’s invention in 1902, the two men were rich. In 1911 Barnes asked Glackens, a former high school classmate, for guidance about modern art. In February 1912 he sent Glackens to Paris with $20,000 to form the nucleus of a collection of  French masters. He returned with approximately twenty works. This success further fueled Barnes’s desire, and he acquired paintings on his own throughout 1912. In December Barnes was in Paris on a major shopping trip, buying work by Cézanne, Honoré Daumier, Renoir, and Picasso. During this visit he met Leo and Gertrude Stein and viewed their collection. The two men quickly became friends and, three months before the Armory Show, Barnes bought his first Matisses from Leo Stein-Still-Life with Melon (1905) and The Sea Seen from Collioure (1906).

Katherine Sophie Dreier (Fig. 3d) was also well versed in the European avant-garde before 1913. Dreier grew up in Brooklyn in an affluent and liberal home. She trained to be a painter and studied art abroad between 1907 and 1914. During the summer of 1912 she visited the Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, Germany, an enormous display of contemporary art that Davies used as a model for the Armory Show. Overwhelmed by the originality and expressiveness of the Fauves, German expressionists, and post-impressionists, Dreier embraced the modernist cause. She traveled to the Netherlands, buying van Gogh’s Adeline Ravoux (Fig. 11), which she loaned to the Armory Show. She would participate too by exhibiting two oils and buying lithographs by Redon and Gauguin.

Lillie Plummer Bliss (Fig. 3f), another collector who would shape the future of modern art in America, was profoundly influenced by Davies.6 Bliss was the daughter of a textile manufacturer in New York. Although she had been collecting prints and drawings for some years, in 1909 she met Davies, who formed her mature tastes. She was one of the financial backers of the Armory Show, although her contributions were anonymous and the amount of her donation remained a secret. Six weeks before the show opened, Bliss purchased an oil by Renoir and a pastel and a painting-Jockeys on Horseback Before Distant Hills (Fig. 9)-by Degas, and lent them anonymously to the show.

Whereas Bliss kept silent about her affiliation, Quinn trumpeted his connection to the Armory Show. He was the biggest lender and buyer, sending in seventy-nine works,7 and spending $5,808.75.8 Tied to his acquisitiveness was his almost singlehanded expansion of the American art market because he made the sale of contemporary art from abroad commercially feasible. In 1909 Congress legislated a 15 percent duty on the importation of all works of art that were less than twenty years old. Customs regulations stipulated that any works borrowed for a show in which a sale might result had to have a bond posted on them in advance. Thus the AAPS was required to post bond for hundreds of works of art coming from Europe-about a third of the objects on display were by foreign artists.

On January 20, 1913, Quinn, accompanied by Kuhn, argued for the repeal of the tariff act before the HouseWays and Means Committee. He declared that “art belongs to no country. Genius cannot be fostered or created by a tariff act.”9 He also pointed out the inherent inequity in a law that permitted the wealthiest collectors to purchase older European masterpieces duty-free while the less affluent patron was burdened with a tax on the only art that might be within his or her means. The act was repealed in October 1913, and Quinn responded by intensifying his quest for objects that would have been exorbitant to obtain before his legislative victory over import duties. Among his matchless post-Armory purchases were Picasso’s Still Life (1915; Columbus Museum of Art); Brancusi’s The Kiss, which he commissioned (Fig. 12); Seurat’s The Circus (1890-1891; Musée d’Orsay); and Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (Fig. 10).

Collectors’ responses to the Armory Show

For some collectors the Armory Show was a confirmation of their earlier intuitions. Barnes, fresh from his mega-spree in Paris and trophies from the Steins’ collection, confined himself to the purchase of a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. Advised by Davies, Bliss bought twenty works, including nine by Odilon Redon (see Fig. 8). For others, the exhibition was a door to perception. Arthur Jerome Eddy, the second largest buyer at the Armory Show, could also claim to be the boldest. Eddy, a lawyer, had been active as a collector and patron since the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he was so impressed by a display of paintings by Whistler and by Rodin’s The Kiss that he commissioned portraits of himself from both artists (see Fig. 15). Churning out articles, reviews, and lectures that courted controversy, he liked being an agitator for modern art.10

Eddy’s absorption of and adaptation to the new art were rapid. In New York and Chicago he bought eighteen paintings and seven lithographs for a total of $4,888.50. Among his most daring acquisitions were Jacques Villon’s Young Girl (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art), Vlaminck’s Village (1912; Art Institute of Chicago), Francis Picabia’s Dances at the Spring (Fig. 13), and Duchamp’s King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (Fig. 1) and Portrait of Chess Players (1911; Philadelphia Museum of Art).

The sensibility of Walter Conrad Arensberg (1878-1954) was similarly radicalized by the Armory Show, although it was fascination with the art that he failed to buy rather than the purchases he made in 1913 that dominated his trajectory as a collector. A Harvard graduate who developed an interest in art when he worked in New York as a reporter for the Evening Post, Arensberg moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, after his marriage in 1907 to Louise Stevens (1879-1953). The Arensbergs visited the Armory Show toward the end of its New York run, but much of what engaged them had already been sold.11

The power of the exhibition and the general excitement of New York persuaded both Arensbergs that they belonged in Manhattan. By early 1914 they had taken an apartment at 33West Sixty-Seventh Street, and they opened it to artists, writers, and anyone else with a revolutionary or creative spirit. Duchamp, who first arrived in the United States in June 1915, was its star, and Katherine Dreier is thought to have first met him at the Arensbergs’ apartment in 1916.12 Dreier became obsessed with the seductive Frenchman, “seeking,” as Francis Naumann has observed, “every conceivable excuse to be in Duchamp’s company.”13 Under Duchamp’s influence, Dreier became a patron of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and she was the first person in the United States to buy or show a work by Piet Mondrian. In 1920, with Duchamp and Man Ray, Dreier founded the Société Anonyme. The aim of the Société, the first museum of modern art, was to bring the international avant-garde to public attention through lectures, publications, and exhibitions.

The Arensbergs’ burgeoning collection hinged on what had slipped away in 1913. They assembled six paintings from the Armory Show: Roger de La Fresnaye’s Paysage, No. 1 (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art), which had been sold to Quinn; and Young Girl, The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, Dances at the Spring, and Albert Gleizes’s Man on Balcony (Portrait of Dr. Théo Morinard) (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art), which had belonged to Eddy. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art) was obtained from the California dealer Frederic C. Torrey after Quinn declined to pay the $1,000 asking price.14 The Arensbergs also bought paintings by Picasso, Georges Braque, Robert Delauney, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Kandinsky, Klee, Morton L. Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, and fifteen sculptures by Brancusi.

The Armory Show’s main buyers did not belong to that elite group of titans who had begun buying old masters in the nineteenth century, but there was one remarkable exception. The most surprising Armory collector was the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (Fig. 3c). Frick was an incomparable collector of medieval, Renaissance, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and decorative arts, but he paid a visit to the Armory Show on March 4, 1913. He toured the show with the painter and critic Walter Pach, who was in charge of sales at the event, and he was struck by Cezanne’s Old Woman with a Rosary (1895-96; National Gallery, London). Frick was on the point of buying it, but was dissuaded by the dealer in tow, who has been identified as Charles Carstairs of M. Knoedler and Company.15 Carstairs, who was Frick’s long-time advisor, might have humored his client were it not for the Cézanne’s price tag: An Old Woman with a Rosary was the costliest object in the Armory Show. It was listed for $48,600, and Frick could easily have afforded it-in 1910 he paid just under $300,000 for Rembrandt’s Polish Rider.16 But Carstairs would not allow a huge amount of money be squandered outside his own establishment, and he prevailed on Frick to avoid such an expensive risk. Frick did emerge with one item from the show. He bought a still-life of flowers for $87.50 by Walter Pach.17

The Armory Show did not mesmerize or transform all the early patrons of twentieth-century art in a uniform manner. Duncan Phillips (Fig. 3e), who would later be known for his support of modern European art, was incensed by what he saw at the show, and it took him several years to change his mind. A banking and steel heir, Phillips lived in Washington, D.C. In 1912 he dismissed the French avant-garde because he believed that they had not incorporated the traditions of the old masters into their own work.18 After labeling Cézanne and the post-impressionists “a bunch of damned fools,”19 and finding Monet’s surfaces too “messy,”20 he protested that the purpose of art was to enhance life with beauty, romance, and dreams. This assumption was violently undercut by the Armory Show, and Phillips walked out in disgust.21

In 1916 Phillips encountered Davies, whose romantic paintings he admired, despite the artist’s dangerous association with cubism. He began to moderate his attitude toward Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, although Matisse remained anathema. Two years later, after both his father and older brother died within months of each other, Phillips decided to establish a “museum of modern art and its sources” in their memory.22 In resolving his own grief, he reconsidered his dogmatic views. Phillips bought his first Monet (Fig. 7) in 1918 and, by the time the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery opened, he had come to terms with cubism and fauvism and was their champion. Under his leadership, the Phillips Collection became a singular beacon of modernism in an otherwise aesthetically ossified city.

Legacy: The formation of institutions

By the 1920s the first generation of collectors began to institutionalize their holdings. The Phillips Memorial Art Gallery was inaugurated in late 1921; in 1922 Barnes chartered his eponymous foundation as an educational institution, making his collection the central core of a curriculum of study. It opened on March 19, 1925, in Merion, Pennsylvania. Quinn died in 1924, and his collection was dispersed. Arensberg, Dreier, and Bliss bought significantly from the Quinn estate. So did Ferdinand Howald, A. Conger Goodyear, and Mary and Cornelius J. Sullivan. These four became prominent buyers in the 1920s, and they all planned to give their collections to museums. Doubtless the sad fate of Quinn’s possessions further influenced the first wave of collectors to preserve their collections by founding or affiliating with public institutions.

In January 1926 the American art critic Forbes Watson wrote an editorial in The Arts mourning the breakup of the Quinn collection. He wished that someone had purchased everything for a new museum of modern art. One of Watson’s readers was the painter and collector Albert E. Gallatin (1881-1952), who credited Watson’s plea as the inspiration for establishing his Gallery of Living Art, which housed his personal collection of cubism, neo-plasticism, and constructivism, on the premises of New York University in 1927.23 Lillie Bliss was at the heart of the most momentous venture of all: in May 1929 she met with fellow collectors Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Mary Sullivan, and Goodyear to discuss establishing a museum in New York.24 The Museum of Modern Art opened on November 8, 1929. These and other new museums of contemporary and modern art25 were the fruit of the Armory Show and the collections it inspired or engendered. No longer branded freakish aberrations, vanguard painting and sculpture were vindicated as permanent additions to the history of art.

AVIS BERMAN is a writer and art historian specializing in American art. This article is adapted from her essay in the catalogue for the exhibition The Armory Show at 100.

  1 Milton W. Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, 2nd ed. (Abbe­ville Press, New York, 1988), pp. 48-49. Brown’s chronicle has remained the classic account of the exhibition; I have relied on its data on buyers, lenders, exhibitors, and prices in this essay.  2 Judith Zilczer, “The Noble Buyer:” John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1978), p. 19.  3 The exhibition was on view from November 8, 1910 to January 15, 1911.  4 The paintings acquired from Vollard in 1912 after Quinn’s visit to Paris were Mme. Cézanne en robe rayée (Portrait of Madame Cezanne) of c. 1877 (Fig. 4); a van Gogh Self-Portrait of 1887 (Fig. 14); and Gauguin’s 1902 Promenade au Bord de la Mer (private collection). 5 Rebecca A. Rabinow, “Discovering Modern Art: The Steins’ Early Years in Paris, 1903-1907,” in The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011), pp. 21-23.  6 The best source of information on Bliss is Rona Roob’s definitive article, “A Noble Legacy,” Art in America, vol. 91 (November 2003), pp. 73-83. Unless otherwise stated, all information on Bliss is drawn from this essay. Roob establishes that Bliss began collecting modern art before the Armory Show, not after it.  7 Zilczer,“The Noble Buyer,” p. 27.  8 Ibid., p. 28.  9 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Ways and Means, Tariff Schedules: Hearings Before the Committee of Ways and Means on Schedule N, Sundries, vol. 24-26l, 63rd Congress, 1st session, 1913, 4537-4550, quoted in Zilczer, “The Noble Buyer,” p. 29.  10 Paul Kruty, “Arthur Jerome Eddy and His Collection: Prelude and Postscript to the Armory Show,” Arts, vol. 61 (February 1987), p. 41. Unless otherwise stated, all information on Eddy is taken from this article.  11 Francis M. Naumann, New York Dada, 1915-23 (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1994), p. 25. Unless otherwise stated, information on the Arensbergs comes from Naumann’s authoritative publication. Walter Arensberg ending up buying four lithographs, one of which he returned.  12 Ibid., p. 156. 13 Ibid., p. 158.  14 Frederic C. Torrey, the original owner of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, decided to sell the painting in 1919. See Francis M. Naumann, “Frederic C. Torrey and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase,” in West Coast Duchamp, ed. Bonnie Clearwater (Grasfield Press, Miami Beach, Fla., 1991), pp. 10-23, for a full account of Torrey’s purchase and sale of the canvas.  15 Walter Pach, Queer Thing, Painting: Forty Years in the World of Art (Harper and Brothers, New York, 1938), pp. 200-201; John Rewald, Cézanne in America: Dealers, Collectors, Artists and Critics, 1891-1921 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1989), p. 203.  16 Colin B. Bailey, “Henry Clay Frick, Roger Eliot Fry, and Rembrandt’s Polish Rider,” Frick Collection Members’ Magazine,  vol. 2 (Spring/Summer 2002), p. 10.  17 Correspondence in the Frick Collection Archives confirms Frick’s interaction with Pach at the Armory Show, and Pach’s ledger book, recently donated to the Archives of American Art, records the sale of the still life to Frick.  18 Elizabeth Hutton Turner, “Modernism in France: Part I: Bonnard, Matisse, and the School of Paris,” in The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making, ed. Erika D. Passantino, (Phillips Collection, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999), p. 185.  19 Entry for July 13, 1912, Duncan Phillips Journal HH, quoted in David W. Scott, “The Evolution of a Critic: Changing Views in the Writings of Duncan Phillips,” in The Eye of Duncan Phillips, p. 19.  20 Duncan Phillips, “Sorolla: The Painter of Sunlight,” Art and Progress, vol. 4 (December 1912), pp. 791-797, quoted in Scott, “The Evolution of a Critic,” p. 12.  21 Scott, “The Evolution of a Critic,” p. 13.  22 Ibid., pp. 12-13.  23 Gail Stavitsky, “A.E. Gallatin’s Gallery and Museum of Living Art (1927-1943),” American Art, vol. 7 (Spring 1993), p. 49. Before the 1920s Gallatin collected Whistler, Beardsley, Beerbohm, and American impressionists and realists; the character of his collecting was not particularly affected by the Armory Show.  24 Roob, “A Noble Legacy,” p. 80. Bliss bequeathed a significant portion of her collection-which at her death contained paintings and works on paper by Cézanne, Daumier, Degas, Gauguin, Redon, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso-to the Museum of Modern Art.  25 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who subsidized the Armory Show but did not attend it, consolidated her galleries for young artists into the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930. Both Gallatin and the Arensbergs later gave their collections to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.