The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends
(1968), a biography by American academic Benjamin Lawrence Reid, narrates the life of Irish American lawyer and art collector John Quinn, examining the circle of artists and writers who benefited from his patronage. The book was awarded the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for a Biography or Autobiography.
Quinn was born in 1870, in Tiffin, Ohio. His father, James Quinn, was a baker. Both James and his wife, Mary, had been born in Ireland; James’s parents also lived in Tiffin, having followed their son from County Limerick to the United States in 1851. Reid traces the family’s history in Ireland, noting that Quinn would retain a lifelong interest in Irish culture and politics.
When Quinn was still a baby, his parents moved to nearby Fostoria, Ohio, where he grew up. He first moved away to attend the University of Michigan. Proving himself intellectually able, he progressed to Georgetown University Law School and finally Harvard. There he earned a degree in international relations, demonstrating his openness to the wider world that would characterize his art collecting.
Upon graduating, Quinn went to New York City, where he began building a successful career as a lawyer. He was also involved in the political organization known as Tammany Hall, which worked to support Irish Catholic candidates in New York City and State politics.
Deeply interested in Irish culture, in 1902, he met the Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats and became a major patron of his work. In particular, he helped fund Dublin’s Abbey Theater, founded by Yeats in 1904 to serve as a new center for Irish dramatic writing. When the poet fell on lean times, Quinn encouraged him to come to the United States, helping him to set up a series of lecture tours which became his main source of income for many years. Later, Quinn would pay for the poet’s father—an accomplished painter—to follow his son across the Atlantic and live out his last years in Greenwich Village.
Quinn also seems to have been a supporter of the Irish nationalist cause, although the evidence is scarce. Reid argues that Quinn was associated with the nationalist Roger Casement (the subject of another biography by Reid), who was hanged for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising. However, better documented is Quinn’s role as an agent for the British Intelligence services, infiltrating anti-British networks of German and Irish Americans during World War I. As the case officer for a network of agents, Quinn handled the esotericist Aleister Crowley, who posed as an Irish nationalist to infiltrate anti-British groups in the US.
In 1912, Quinn broke with Tammany Hall and abandoned politics altogether, after his candidate was passed over at the Democratic National Convention. Instead, he turned to serious art collecting. He hired the French novelist Henri-Pierre Roche (best known as the author of Jules et Jim
) to advise him on Post-Impressionism.
In Quinn’s lifetime, Americans had been discouraged from collecting contemporary European art by the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which imposed a duty on imported artworks. Quinn lobbied for the Act to be overturned, which it duly was in 1913. Later that year, he and Roche put together the 1913 Armory Show, which Reid holds constitutes Quinn’s most important contribution to American artistic life.
Officially “The International Exhibition of Modern Art,” the Armory Show introduced American audiences to the most avant-garde and controversial movements in European painting, including Symbolist, Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, Futurist, and Cubist works. Paintings displayed included Matisse’s Blue Nude
and Duchamps’ Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2
. Both were highly controversial, provoking outrage and satire.
The year 1913 also represented a high-water mark in Quinn’s legal career. That year he represented Margaret Kieley in a $2,000,000 battle over her husband’s estate. The size of the sum drew press attention, and Quinn prevailed when the other parties—Kieley’s nephews and nieces—could not produce key witnesses.
As well as collecting art, Quinn continued to be a patron of avant-garde literature. He supported the novelist Joseph Conrad and bought several of his manuscripts. In the 1920s, he combined his literary interests with his legal expertise in his defense of The Little Review
’s editors, who had serialized James Joyce’s Ulysses
, judged “obscene” by the US Post Office. The trial was a sensation, with Greenwich Villagers occupying the courtroom. The Review’s
editors were convicted.
Quinn was a friend and supporter of the American poet Ezra Pound, and through Pound encountered T.S. Eliot. He gave Eliot financial and legal help and was rewarded with the gift of Eliot’s original manuscript for The Waste Land
. Presumed lost, the manuscript was rediscovered in the New York Public Library. Its rediscovery was first announced in Reid’s book.
Quinn died of cancer at age 54. Leaving no heirs, he instructed his collection to be auctioned off to collectors around the world. The auction took place in New York in 1927. Works by some of the era’s greatest artists were sold, including paintings by Henri Matisse and Constantin Brancusi.