John Quinn: the Amazing Irish-American from New York

By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

I want to tell you about an amazing man.

While doing my academic research on early 20th century writers, an interesting fringe character kept popping up. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig he appeared in biographies, letters and group photos with Matisse, Picasso, Ezra Pound, James Joyce. Who was this guy?

Recently I researched the 1913 New York Armory Show for my book about the writers, “Such Friends.” There was John Quinn again, buying art in Paris, organizing the first exhibition of international modern art in America, writing to Joseph Conrad and other struggling writers.

Curious, I read the only biography of Quinn, B. L. Reid’s The Man from New York:  John Quinn & His Friends, and discovered it is really awful—poorly written, badly organized. Worst of all, it makes this fascinating man boring.

Here is the Quinn I discovered:

Born in 1870, he was the son of an Irish immigrant baker. He grew up in middle-class Fostoria, OH, and attended the University of Michigan. When a family friend was appointed US Treasury Secretary, Quinn went to work for him in Washington, DC. Holding down a full-time government job, he attended Georgetown University law school at night.

After earning an advanced degree in international relations from Harvard (not bad for a shanty-Irish baker’s son), Quinn moved to New York City, his home for the rest of his life. He predictably worked on high-profile corporate cases for a large firm. Just after 1900, his mother and two sisters died within a few months of each other, and he began to explore his Irish roots. On his first trip to Ireland, at a Galway feis, he met Lady Augusta Gregory and other friends of William Butler Yeats. While helping this group establish the Abbey Theatre, he started his own New York law firm in 1906.

His practice was supported by lucrative corporate retainers, and he became associated with Tammany Hall. When his candidate didn’t get the 1912 Democratic Party nomination, he became disgusted with politics (go figure). He turned his energies to the arts.

During the first decades of the 20th century Quinn managed to:  help organize the Armory Show; fight to eliminate tariffs on contemporary art; bail out the Abbey players, arrested for performing Playboy of the Western World in Philadelphia; have many affairs, including one with Lady Gregory, support Yeats’ father in New York by buying his paintings; support Joyce in Paris by buying his manuscripts; argue the original obscenity case against the banning of Ulysses excerpts; carry on detailed correspondences with most of the cultural luminaries of the time; and amass an incredible collection of modern art. All before his death from cancer at the age of 54.

The only other book about him is a catalogue from the Hirshorn Museum’s memorial exhibit in 1978. The most fascinating tidbits are found in the footnotes. Quinn’s “assistant,” “companion,” and “devoted friend” was Mrs. Jeanne Robert Foster, who, for the last six years of his life helped him on his European collecting trips, while remaining married to the wealthy Matlock Foster. This just gets better and better.

After his death, his art collection, all 2000 pieces, was sold off among museums and collectors. His voluminous correspondence was donated to the New York Public Library, including the original manuscript of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland.

When I gave my presentation about the Armory Show to a group of art collectors, I tried to communicate to them Quinn’s enthusiasm for supporting artists as well as art.

Read more about all the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. Check out the blog about what they were doing 100 years ago this month, or the daily postings to find out what happened on this date. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

14 thoughts on “John Quinn: the Amazing Irish-American from New York

  1. Hi there, I am researching for a PhD in the art of George Russell AE, one of the Irish Literary Revivalists and again John Quinn’s name keeps coming up. He was an incredible inspiration and really a huge influence on so many artists and writers both European and American. I can’t understand why he’s not promoted more. I gave a talk on the Amory Sow and his contribution was immense. I came across your blog by accident so was really interested in it as I’m feeling a trifle isolated with my work. Nobody knows who these people are!!

    • Thank you! Nice to know someone else out there appreciates him–and AE. I did a talk on the Armory Show at the Southbank Centre in London and kept dropping his name. I was hoping someone in the audience would grab me afterwards and say, ‘I’m a publisher/agent/editor and would love to have you write a biography of this guy!’ Didn’t happen. Where are you doing your Ph.D? Can I add you to my ‘Such Friends’ list?

      • Hi there. Sure, I’d be happy to join your group. I’m doing my PhD in Limerick in Ireland where you’d think a lot more would be known about John Quinn given his background and patronage to all things Irish but very few have heard of him. He’s a fascinating figure all round. I definitely think there’s an opening for a re-awakening of his contribution to the Irish arts at the very least. Not to mention AE’s own art which is all but unknown here. There’s another book about Quinn and his art collection by Judith Zilczer, ‘The noble buyer: John Quinn, patron of the avant-garde’ which tied in with an exhibition of his collection in the Smithsonian in Washington in 1978. I’ve read B.L. Reid’s book and while I agree it was a bit worthy, it did give a great insight into just how obsessed Quinn was in all aspects of life – I love the Jeanne Foster aside as well, not to mention poor May Morris and her obsession with him. Thanks for your interest. It’s nice to get someone else’s opinion when your interested in the same things. Like I said before I feel a bit isolated working on this.

      • I did a piece years ago on Gwen John, the post Impressionist painter and got involved with Quinn owing to his interest in GJ and her work. He may symmbolize the degeneracy of Irish America; loss of faith, eagerness to worship at the altar of modernity, political radicalism cloaked in NYC corporate finery. Helping to mount the Armory Show, gave him credentials with secular elites which he craved as his ultimate concern.
        James Anthony Sullivan

      • Interesting take on him! he was definitely an opportunist. He turned to the artists of the Armory Show after his involvement in politics didn’t get his candidate elected and he became disillusioned with politicians. Go figure. I would love to do more research about him. Do you mind if I add you to my Such Friends e-mail list? I don’t send out things often, but like to let fans of the period know what’s going on…

    • Really? I read Reid’s book a few years ago when I expanded my research on creative groups of people in the early 20th century to include the Armory Show [it’s got all four of my groups, one way or another]. I had been fascinated by Quinn, and found that Reid’s biography was really a disappointment. Did find a really good bio in an extended introduction to a catalogue for an exhibition of Quinn’s collection a few years ago. Would love to dig in and expand on that to write a full biography that pulls together all the strands…

  2. Kathleen,

    I’ll be giving the talk again in Edinburgh to Friends of Talbot Rice Gallery at the University and to the Scottish Arts Club. I’ll let you know when although I suspect you are rather far from here!

    Best wishes

    Robin

  3. Dear Kathleen
    How extraordinary that John Quinn is such an unsung hero! I gave a Presentation on the life of British Artist Gwen John in Paris in Edinburgh last week. Researching John Quinn, her collector, I was astonished by what I discovered just on his Wikipedia page. Obviously a new Biography is required!
    Sincerely,
    Robin Paine

  4. Henri-Pierre Roché a friend of Brancusi and John Quinn stated that Quinn was the most “intrepid and sensational man” he ever met.

    Radu Varia-Brancusi

    • Yes! Amazing is a true understatement. He collected early and often, and it all got sold off at his death. Have been collecting myself–info about him–and would love to write a really good bio of him some day. He deserves it.

  5. Kathleen,

    What is truly amazing is that there is very little information about this man. I am extremely interested in the fact that he collected over 50 works of Constantin Brancusi during his life. In my opinion he was a giant in the world of art collecting.

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