The life and accomplishments of John Quinn are so improbable that if they were fiction no one would believe them. The son of a baker from a small town in Ohio, Quinn, by the time of his untimely death in 1924 at the age of 54, had not only amassed the greatest collection of contemporary European art in the world, but he had also played an instrumental role as patron of some of the world’s greatest literary talents including Ezra Pound, T.S Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce. Author Aline Saarinen called Quinn, “the twentieth century’s most important patron of living literature and art.” Alfred Barr, the first director of the Modern Museum of Art, called him, “the greatest American collector of art of his day.” Though Quinn’s legacy is huge, and much has been written about him, Quinn remains a contradictory and enigmatic character.
Quinn’s meteoric rise from Midwestern small town to Wall Street powerhouse lawyer seems like it came straight out of Horatio Alger. Born on April 14, 1870, Quinn grew up as a voracious reader in middle-class Fostoria, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan, where his high intelligence and photographic memory made him a top student. When a family friend was appointed United States Treasury Secretary, Quinn went to work for him in Washington, D.C. Holding down a full-time government job, he graduated from Georgetown University law school at night. After earning an advanced degree in international relations from Harvard, Quinn headed to New York City, where he quickly proved himself to be a first-rate Wall Street lawyer who attracted top-tier corporations, banks, and insurance companies as his clients.
Quinn’s meteoric rise to the top of Wall Street never diminished his love of Ireland. Quinn extensively read the literature of the Celtic Revival and corresponded with all the major figures of the Irish Renaissance. When John Millington Synge began to correspond with Quinn in 1904, he was grateful for Quinn’s financial support of his work, but he also recognized a kindred soul and Quinn’s strong aesthetic sense. Quinn’s love of Irish art and Irish causes became the basis of a warm friendship between the two men and Quinn was devastated by Synge’s untimely death.
When the Irish Americans questioned the merits of the work of writers such as W.B. Yeats, Synge, and Joyce, Quinn became a champion of Irish art. He soon became a patron of the Abbey Theater, organizing the Abbey’s first American tour of Synge’s highly controversial drama "The Playboy of The Western World." When he vigorously defended Synge’s work from attempts to suppress the drama, he earned the enduring friendship of Lady Gregory with whom he would have an extensive correspondence until his death.
Word of Quinn’s largesse spread quickly in impoverished Ireland, and soon his Manhattan apartment became a must-visit for almost every visiting Irish artist and politician. Quinn not only organized a highly successful American speaking tour for W.B. Yeats but also befriended and subsidized his father, John Butler Yeats, who felt so at home with Quinn in the Big Apple that he turned a deaf ear to his children’s repeated requests that he return to Ireland. When J. B. Yeats died penniless in New York, Quinn paid for the burial costs and even bought a grave and headstone for the aged Irish painter.
Quinn also organized a highly lucrative speaking tour for Douglas Hyde, the President of the Gaelic League. Hyde claimed that the money that Quinn helped him raise in America led the league to its greatest success, the compulsory teaching of Gaelic in Irish schools. He also purchased several works of Irish painters, particularly A.E. Russell and Jack Yeats.
Though Quinn was a generous patron, he was no patron saint. He could be irascible, petulant, and self-pitying. His Irish temper was legendary, and his bigotry was so strong that it exceeded the standards of his day. J. B. Yeats, who called Quinn “ a man of Napoleonic arrogance,” feared Quinn’s wrath, but also complimented the lawyer, considering him “ a man of genius” without “ a touch of the commonplace or of any other kind of prose in his whole composition.” Quinn never married, so he never had a wife to calm his volatile nature.
Quinn grew increasingly disgusted by what he saw as the narrow-mindedness and cultural parochialism prevailing in parts of Irish America. He was especially bitter over Irish America’s venomous reception of Synge’s "Playboy of the Western World." When its cast members were thrown in jail in Philadelphia in 1911, Quinn defended them, incurring the wrath of many in the Catholic church and especially Clan na Gael’s John Devoy, whom Quinn meanly referred to as “that old fool.”
By 1912, he had become increasingly interested in Continental art rather than Irish art, and his focus increasingly shifted from literature to painting. Quinn would become the driving force behind the most important art show in American history, the Armory Show of 1913. Quinn hoped that the Armory Show would eradicate the American provincialism he despised. As the show’s major financial backer and the greatest lender to the show, Quinn was chosen to deliver the opening speech, and he opened the exhibition with these prophetic words:
" . . . it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art."
Quinn became the largest buyer at the show and he purchased many avant-garde masterpieces for a fraction of the later value.
Though Quinn was a rich man, he did not have the funds of robber barons or even millionaires like Albert Barnes. Quinn decided that he would collect the art of living artists, saying, “To me, it is more interesting to buy the work of a living artist and besides there is a satisfaction in feeling that in buying the world of living men and in helping them to live and create one is in a sense a co-creator or a participant in the work of creation.”
From 1914 to 1924, Quinn invested a half-million dollars in assembling his collection. Prescient to an extreme degree, Quinn bought the works of unrecognized great artists at what now seem ridiculously low prices. He purchased an astonishing 5,000 Picasso works. Quinn had an uncanny ability to recognize genius, and he sunk all of his available cash for the last 10 years of his life into underappreciated modern European art.
Though Quinn’s focus had shifted more to art than literature, he still retained a great interest in great writing and he became the patron of poet Ezra Pound. Quinn and Pound planned to do for literature what the Armory Show had done for painting, placing the work of great writers in an international context. To support writers, Quinn purchased original manuscripts from Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats.
Perhaps Quinn’s greatest service to Irish arts was his support for James Joyce. When Quinn learned from Pound of a new Irish genius called James Joyce, he became intrigued. He began sending Joyce money during the summer of 1916, beginning with a gift of 10 pounds. Although Quinn had not yet met Joyce, he wrote to Joyce saying, “I’m not generally in the staking business and the number of demands that have been made upon me during the war from all quarters for loans and advances has been very great, more than I could meet. But I send you this with pleasure. Really it is because I am interested in your work.”
Quinn early on recognized "Ulysses" as a masterpiece, telling Joyce “What a wonderful thing I think Ulysses is and will be. It will be unique. Nothing Like it has ever been done.” Quinn told Wyndham Lewis, “Ulysses may not be the final thing. But it may lead to a new literary form.” He also told Shane Leslie, “It is a great tour de force; a very great work, indeed. He [Joyce] has done new things with the English language. His genius is Irish, his frankness in dealing with facts, his courage, his interest in all forms of life and his sense of similitude, are Irish.” When the American publishers of Ulysses were arrested, Quinn defended them in court, but lost the case. Although he lost, Quinn’s arguments were used in the judge’s decision 12 years later that cleared Ulysses for publication in the United States.
Quinn, though never lived to hear that verdict. On July 28, 1924, he died of cancer. Many artists realized that one of the world’s most important patrons had died. In his will, Quinn directed that his collection, which few had ever seen, be sold off at public auction, with the proceeds going to his relatives. Quinn wanted the art that had delighted him to be on the market again for people like him, collectors who could appreciate the joy of finding and owning a masterpiece. Had his collection been gathered in a museum, it would be a dazzling reminder of the amazing eye for the beauty of one of the greatest American collectors ever. One of the great mysteries about Quinn is what drove him to devote his whole life to investing in the success of more talented others. That devotion to art and artists is his enduring legacy.