Most discussion of the 1913 Armory Show in this centennial year has focused on its critical reception, and on the ways it shocked Americans and helped reshape their taste in art. “The Armory Show at 100,” which opened Friday at the New-York Historical Society, continues that conversation, presenting the largest collection of artworks from the 1913 show (officially called the International Exhibition of Modern Art) ever assembled since. It features many of the exhibition’s most important and controversial works, including Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” Brancusi’s “Mlle. Pogany I,” and Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” and offers insight into the show’s influence on art history and the dominant aesthetic in American art at the time.
But the Historical Society exhibition also touches on another aspect of the Armory Show: the role of money. Then as now, sales were a crucial measure of a show’s success, and Armory Show organizers were meticulous about logging retail prices, sales made, and the names of buyers (including some of the most important collectors of the day). Critics of today’s art world often decry the rampant commercialization of art fairs, but even a hundred years ago, the bottom line was the bottom line for many in the art world.
In homage to a much-maligned animating force of the art world, we thought we’d take a look at the 1913 fair in the terms that interested its organizers — and that would preoccupy an art-market reporter covering the show today. We urge you to see the New-York Historical Society show. But in the meantime — with the help of Milton Brown’s “The Story of the Armory Show” (Abbeville Press, 1988) — we offer our version of a numbers-focused, “on the ground” fair report from early 1913, when the original show opened — and when a car cost $490 and a house $3,395.
Visitors pouring into the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street on Feb. 17 were greeted by American artist George Grey Barnard’s “The Prodigal Son and His Father,” an enormous marble sculpture that announced the intent of the Armory Show: to showcase progressive American artists against a backdrop of European avant-gardists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and the Duchamp-Villon brothers (Marcel, Jacques, and Raymond).
But the crowds, which throughout the fair have steadily accumulated in Gallery I — French Paintings and Sculpture — at the far end of the hall, announced something different: this fair, it was soon clear, was all about the Europeans.
Sales confirmed what those present could easily see for themselves. While two-thirds of the 1,200-plus works on display were American, about two-thirds of sales were for European art, much of which was highly challenging.
Prices ranged from $6, for lithographs, to $48,000, for a Cézanne painting. The artist, although already dead for six years, was among a group of Europeans whose works had yet to be seen on these shores in a major public show — though connoisseurs with a taste for advanced art may have already seen examples at photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz’s Flatiron-District gallery, 291. Considering these artists are generally little known in the United States, prices for some of their works seemed astronomical to many. Gaugin’s 13 pieces in the show — paintings, sculptures, and prints — included a $945 wooden sculpture and an oil painting, “Fleur Sur Un Fond Jaune,” priced at $40,500. van Gogh was represented by 18 works, priced between $1,600 and $26,000. (On the low end, Cézanne’s 14 works in the show included lithographs of “Les Beigneurs” going for $27 a pop, which sold to Stieglitz and Armory Show lead organizer Arthur Davies, among others.)
The high prices reflected the artists’ solid reputations in Europe, where they’ve been celebrated for a decade, but Americans can’t be expected to shell out that kind of money for artists they aren’t yet familiar with. No one paid close to the highest end of the range of the retail prices. The highest price paid for a work was for Cézanne’s “Coline de Pauvres,” which sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $6,700, making the Met the first American institution to purchase a work by the artist.
A plan announced by fair co-organizer Walt Kuhn to "feature Redon big (BIG!)" — by which he meant Odilon Redon, a French mystical symbolist — went over well. Thirteen of Redon's paintings sold, and 20 prints, with prices ranging from $195 to $4,050 for his oils and pastels.
The fair was a bit difficult to walk around. With 18 galleries divided into three rows, once you began down one aisle, you were somewhat railroaded to the end of that line. The centerpiece of the show, a cluster of four rooms in the middle of the Armory, featured established American and European artists including Degas, Delacroix, and Kandinsky (whose sole work in the show — a colorful abstract number — went to Stieglitz for $500).
Among the thousands of people who roamed the aisles each day of the month-long show — 3,000 on Day 1, increasing steadily to 10,000 by the end— were collectors both seasoned and new, conservative and adventurous.
The largest buyer was New York-based lawyer John Quinn, who spent nearly $6,000 on works by Redon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and the popular Polish artist Eugene Zak, among others. Chicago lawyer and prominent collector Arthur J. Eddy, the next biggest buyer — widely known as the first man to ride a bicycle and own an automobile in Chicago — made some more daring selections, in keeping with his reputation for picking up artists before the general public cottons on to them. He chose four of the most difficult works in the show: Marcel Duchamp’s “The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes,” Francis Picabia’s “Dances at the Spring,” Jacques Villon’s “Young Girl,” and André Derain’s “Forest at Martigues.” Eddy apparently raced in from Chicago (though the fair is scheduled to head there next) after hearing of Quinn’s purchases. In total, he dropped roughly $5,000 on 18 paintings and seven prints.
Collector and patron Lillie Bliss, who helped fund the show, picked up two paintings by Redon and 18 prints by various artists including Charles and Maurice Prendergast. Henry Frick, who claimed he would have bought Cézanne’s “Femme au Chapelet” had someone not gotten to it first, put less adventurous tastes into practice when he bought a small painting, “Flowers” by Walter Pach, for $87.50.
Budding collectors were out in good numbers, too, displaying a taste for the fresh, or just being cocky. Albert Barnes, the Philadelphia-based doctor and businessman who has been collecting for three years, and last year visited the cutting-edge expat collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein in Paris, reportedly claimed when walking into the show that he owns better things. Nonetheless, he walked away with Fauvist Maurice de Vlaminck’s “Figues.” Down from Boston, Walter Arensberg, the 35-year-old scion of a crucible steel fortune, initially opted for an Edouard Vuillard print but later returned it for a Raymond Duchamp-Villon.
Artists were also on the make. Edith Dimrock bought a drawing by Walt Kuhn, who in turn snatched up a Cézanne print. Walter Pach picked up a Gaugin litho, and Elmer MacRae, the American painter highly influenced by the Impressionists, went home with a print by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Amid all this wheeling and dealing, one work — the most buzzed about in the show — was quietly sold sight unseen. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2),” a large, dynamic painting of a jumble of sharp, machine-like planes and angles composed into a vaguely human form that appears to be in walking down a flight of stairs, went to Frederic C. Torrey of the San Francisco interior design firm Vickey, Atkins and Torrey, for $324. Though deluged with subsequent offers by jilted shoppers, Torrey declined to part with his purchase.
The painting was displayed in the Cubist room, also known as the “Chamber of Horrors,” where it was always obscured by a thick crowd. Inscrutable to most viewers and dubbed a “dynamited suit of Japanese armor” and “an explosion in a shingle factory,” the painting was the embodiment of what made this show so confounding to many. Whereas the American artists of the Ashcan School like John Sloan and Robert Henri had made an effort to ruffle American feathers with their unpolished depictions of everyday life in New York — women combing their hair, men drinking at a bar — at least you could tell what they were painting.
Knoedler gallery, that august arbiter, is said to have refused to advertise in the Armory Show catalogue because the show encouraged “radical tendencies in Modern art.” Artist Robert Delauney requested that his works be removed from the show. Even Theodore Roosevelt, who visited and wrote about the show for his “Outlook” magazine, noted that while to be afraid of the unfamiliar “is to be afraid of life,” it is equally true “that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development.” He shrugged off the “European extremists” and, calling the Cubist pictures “repellent from every standpoint,” argued that “Probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously.”
But others bore the responsibility for failing to understand the work. As one reader wrote in response to the poetry challenge by American Art News to solve the puzzle of finding the “Nude” in Duchamp’s painting: “I do not say Futurism / May merely be astigmatism / I do not urge the Futurist / To hasten to an oculist / If this or that I can’t divine / It’s eight to five the fault is mine.”