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Lost in Translation: When the United States Met Pablo Picasso

Hugh Eakin on John Quinn, the Man Who First Introduced America to Modern Art and New Ideas

For the first four decades of his life, the man who would soon become the world’s greatest collector of the Paris avant-garde knew astonishingly little about modern art. Not only had John Quinn never encountered a Picasso, he had seen hardly any French paintings of the past half century at all. For several generations, artists in the French capital had been leading one of the greatest upheavals in Western art history.

Yet Quinn hadn’t absorbed the work of their 19th-century forerunners, the Impressionists. In his sole visit to France, a hurried, one-day Channel crossing during a hectic trip to London, all he had managed to do was spend an hour at Chartres Cathedral, which he found oppressive. Indeed, he seemed almost unaware that Paris existed.

This blind spot did not come from lack of curiosity or ambition. To the contrary. At the time of the 291 show, Quinn’s reputation as an art enthusiast and literary maven already extended to both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, he was admired for his legal mind, his self-possession, and his deep connections in the worlds of finance and politics; the spring of the Picasso show, the Democratic Party briefly considered tapping him to run for the U.S. Senate. In London and Dublin, where he seemed to have personal friendships with nearly all of the newest writers and poets, he was known as the improbably well-informed Yankee who had a preternatural ability to sniff out genius—and bring it to the United States.

It was Quinn who had urged the Irish poet W.B. Yeats to read Nietzsche; Quinn who served as an informal talent scout for a young New York publisher named Alfred Knopf, introducing him to a continual stream of modernist writers that would eventually include Conrad, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound, among many others. In his social circle, Quinn counted President Theodore Roosevelt and Judge Learned Hand, but also the Ashcan School painter John Sloan and the British actress Florence Farr Emery. As a young man he had stood behind Grover Cleveland at his inauguration; in London he had met a rising politician named Winston Churchill.

Yet there was almost nothing in Quinn’s expansive orbit that connected him to the epicenter of artistic revolt in Europe.

And then there was his energy. He routinely put in fourteen- and fifteen-hour days at his law practice, preceded by early morning horseback rides in Central Park and followed by dinners with critics, publishers, judges, and other friends several nights a week. Forswearing marriage as quaint and cumbersome, he had a continual series of women companions, who tended to find him irresistibly attractive and maddeningly elusive in equal measure. (“You brought me to life, and then…? My heart is breaking,” May Morris, the glamorous daughter of the late Victorian designer and artist William Morris, wrote to Quinn, around the time of the Picasso show.)

Nowhere was his roving spirit more in evidence than in the vast correspondence he kept with a transatlantic circle of writers, publishers, judges, politicians, and other accomplished and influential persons, among them the greater Yeats family, the novelist Joseph Conrad, the Irish playwright (and Quinn’s onetime lover) Lady Gregory, the critic George Russell, and the future Irish president Douglas Hyde.

Sitting at his dining room table on Sunday afternoons, Quinn would call in as many as three secretaries, to whom he liked to dictate letters simultaneously, some of them running to fifteen or twenty pages or more. (To improve efficiency, he composed certain block paragraphs—describing a book he had read, say, or his thoughts about a particular event or international crisis—that he could drop into letters to multiple correspondents.)

Of all his exertions, perhaps most striking was his athletic reading habit, which he indulged late at night, or in train cars to and from meetings in Washington. Heine, Carlyle, Santayana, Lafcadio Hearn; French novels, German philosophy, Irish plays, Indian poetry. The Times, The Masses, The Gaelic American, The English Review. In an age of proliferating magazines, he read them all, and he consumed books at a rate of nearly a thousand a year, from many of which he could quote verbatim. In later years, when T. S. Eliot sent him a draft of “The Waste Land,” he committed it to memory by having Jeanne Foster read it to him while he shaved. “It is amazing how seldom my mind ever gets tired,” Quinn commented to one friend a few months before he saw the Picassos at 291. “My body sometimes tires.”

He was known as the improbably well-informed Yankee who had a preternatural ability to sniff out genius—and bring it to the United States

Yet there was almost nothing in Quinn’s expansive orbit that connected him to the epicenter of artistic revolt in Europe. At the Metropolitan Museum, New York’s only public art gallery, it was hard to find any significant French painting more recent than the late eighteenth century. The bankers and insurance magnates for whom Quinn worked had tastes that ran to the Renaissance and medieval period. And while he kept in touch with a wide network of writers and intellectuals in Britain and Ireland, they were nearly as unfamiliar with Montmartre as he was.

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In many respects, it was remarkable that Quinn had gotten as far as Wall Street. Born in 1870, he grew up in an immigrant household in small-town Ohio. Both parents had escaped the potato famine in Ireland; his mother had come as an orphan of fourteen, and a few years later married his father, who ran a bakery. Out of eight siblings, only Quinn and two sisters survived far into adulthood.

But Quinn was not like other children. His youthful obsessions were Helen of Troy, whose ungodly beauty had driven men to war, and Buffalo Bill, the legendary conqueror of the West. Under the sway of his intellectually curious mother, he also began spending pocket money on novels by Thomas Hardy and other contemporary European writers, which he consumed on the living room floor—an exceedingly unusual habit for a baker’s son in the 19th-century American hinterland. In high school, he volunteered to run an Ohio politician’s campaign for Congress.

He also made a large bet on the 1888 presidential election, which he lost. Already he was beginning to nourish the speculative interests in culture and politics that, along with a tendency to see the world as a series of battles to be waged and won, would define his later thrust into what he called the “modern art fight.”

At the same time, his quick intelligence and extraordinary self-assurance—helped by a slender six-foot-one physique and chiseled profile—marked him as someone with places to go. Within a year of matriculating at the University of Michigan, he was recruited to come to Washington as private secretary to Charles Foster, the former Ohio governor who had just been appointed U.S. Treasury Secretary by President Benjamin Harrison. Struck by Quinn’s abilities, Secretary Foster hoped his protégé would return to a political career in Ohio and marry his daughter Annie—the first in a series of attractive prospects that Quinn would turn down.

From the outset, it was literature and politics that excited him, and he was stifled by the conservatism he found in New York.

While working at the Treasury, Quinn spent nights completing a law degree at Georgetown and reading Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe. Moving on to Harvard Law School, he obtained a second degree, finding time along the way to study philosophy with William James and aesthetics with George Santayana. By the time he started out as a young finance attorney in New York, it was already clear that legal work would be unlikely to fully occupy his restless mind.

From the outset, it was literature and politics that excited him, and he was stifled by the conservatism he found in New York. Discovering his Irish roots, he was entranced by the literary awakening taking place in Dublin, where a group of writers and intellectuals had set out to reinvent the Irish nation in prose, drama, language, and ideas.

Traveling to Britain and Ireland in 1902, when the movement was at its height, he met W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, whose co-written modern stage play Cathleen ni Houlihan, based on the Irish rebellion against British rule of 1798, was stirring audiences to a frenzy. (Years later, after the Irish leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising had been executed by the British, Yeats in his poem “The Man and the Echo” was still recalling the reaction to Cathleen: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”) As Quinn quickly grasped, literature could change the way people think. It was a power he wanted to harness in the United States.

The following year, he brought Yeats to New York, determined to launch him in America. At the time Yeats was an obscure foreign poet who had not been published in the United States, but through an extraordinary publicity campaign and monthslong, cross-country lecture tour, Quinn managed to turn him into an improbable national celebrity. (One of Quinn’s techniques was to plant stories about Yeats in local newspapers in advance of each lecture, thus guaranteeing large crowds.)

In addition to setting up more than sixty lectures, including engagements at Harvard, Yale, and Carnegie Hall, Quinn arranged for Yeats to have lunch at the White House, and by the end of the tour, his works were being fought over by several of the country’s leading publishers. It was a formula that Quinn would rely on frequently over the next decade, as he helped introduce a series of writers, dramatists, and politicians from Dublin and London to the United States. During a visit to Ireland in 1907, Francis Hackett, the literary editor of The Chicago Evening Post, was astonished by the stories he heard about the New York lawyer and his promotional talents. “I foresee a John Quinn Myth,” he wrote.

As Quinn quickly grasped, literature could change the way people think. It was a power he wanted to harness in the United States.

By the time he came face-to-face with the Picasso drawings at Stieglitz’s gallery, Quinn had long since become one of the primary conduits for bringing new ideas from England and Ireland to the United States. He also was known for supporting new art in New York, including the work of The Eight, the group of artists who were striving to unshackle American painting from tired academic traditions and capture the gritty experience of modern urban life. And yet, when it came to Picasso and the Paris avant-garde, he was no more prepared than anyone else.

Today, it is hard to grasp how perplexing it was for New Yorkers to walk into a room crammed with Picasso’s Cubist figures. Conditioned by centuries of representational art, they saw his drastically simplified heads as “Alaskan totem poles”; his use of cones and cubes to capture multiple simultaneous points of view as the “emanations of a disordered mind.” Quinn was so baffled by the drawings that, when he described them to a friend afterward, he referred to them as “studies(?)” as if he couldn’t quite conceive of them as actual works of art.

And yet the lessons he drew from the experience were more complicated: Here was an artist who was doing something completely new and was willing to court disdain for it. Agreeing with the views of his British friend, Quinn wrote, “I don’t suppose Picasso expects the approval of the public for a moment.” There was an exhilarating audacity to what the artist was up to, even if the work repelled him.

In offering a first glimpse of the new frontier of modern art, the Picasso exhibition at 291 was a coup. If its aim was to establish American interest in Cubism, however, it was a catastrophic failure. Hoping to attract adventurous collectors, Stieglitz had priced the drawings at $12 each. Yet even after extending the show’s run for several weeks, he had managed to sell only one of the eighty-three works in the show, the tamest of the group. Despite the low prices and his previously declared interest, Quinn declined to acquire any of them.

Saddled with a huge trove of unsold pictures, Stieglitz was desperate. Having relayed to Picasso shortly after the opening that the show was a “great success,” he was in the embarrassing position of having to return nearly all of the works to Paris. In the end, he decided to purchase the magnificent Standing Female Nude, the “fire escape” drawing, for himself. Then he approached the Metropolitan Museum with a bold proposal: Would the museum like to acquire the entire remaining set of Picasso drawings for $2,000?

In retrospect, it was an extraordinary opportunity. Here, in a single group of works, was the story of the development of Cubism between 1906 and 1911, a period during which Picasso had pushed forward one of the greatest transformations in artistic practice in five centuries. At the time, the big museum was the wealthiest art institution in the world and the price would hardly have registered. This was in the same year that Henry Clay Frick paid $475,000 for Velázquez’s Philip IV and Peter Widener spent a half million dollars on Rembrandt’s The Mill. The eighty-one Picasso drawings would not even have covered the dealer’s commission on those sales.

But there wasn’t a chance. When Stieglitz made his offer to Bryson Burroughs, the Met’s curator of paintings, Burroughs could barely hide his amusement. “Such mad pictures,” he told him, “would never mean anything to America.”

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Excerpted from Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America by Hugh Eakin. Copyright © 2022. Available from Crown Publishing Group, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Hugh Eakin
Hugh Eakin
Hugh Eakin, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, has written about museums and the art world for The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.





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