The Armory Show
100 Years Later
On February 17, 1913, the French invaded America. On that day the International Exhibition of Modern Art, a.k.a. the Armory Show, opened at Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory. Its scope—about 1,300 works by 300 artists—was vast, but attention focused on a coterie of avant-garde French artists, much of their work making its U.S. debut. Incensed critics howled—and the public poured in. An estimated 87,000 people attended this month-long event, which transformed American culture.
The organizers of the Armory Show contextualized the work of younger French artists on view by showing a substantial amount of work by their predecessors—painters such as postimpressionists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne, who in the late 19th century had set the modernist revolution in motion. Although the remark that Cézanne was “the father of us all” has been attributed to both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Cézanne’s direct influence on the young modernists can most easily be seen in the cubist paintings Picasso and his coconspirator Georges Braque produced in the years before World War I. The cubists’ flattening of the picture plane and depiction of reality from multiple perspectives owe much to the perceptual experiments Cézanne had conducted a generation earlier.
Paintings by Van Gogh and Cézanne were hung together in a single gallery at the armory. Unfortunately, the Cézannes did not represent the artist’s best work—a point the show’s critics noted. Nonetheless, the trustees of New York’s Metropolitan Museum purchased one of them—a small, luminous landscape, Hill of the Poor, now called View of the Domain Saint-Joseph—making the Met the first American museum to own a picture by Cézanne.
Years before the Armory Show introduced a wide American public to the pleasures, or outrages, of European modern art, two Americans, a brother and sister who lived together in Paris, were already accumulating a collection that included paintings by Paul Cézanne (whose work the brother particularly liked) and Pablo Picasso (whose work the sister particularly liked), as well as Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others, some famous and some now obscure, whose paintings the siblings could afford because, although they weren’t extraordinarily wealthy, they shared enough inherited income to buy art that, because it was by artists who were then unknown, was then relatively cheap, and whose paintings they hung in a large, whitewashed atelier in the house they leased at number 27 Rue de Fleurus, which would later become an extremely famous address because of the salons the brother and sister, and later, after the brother had moved away, the sister and her companion, a Miss Toklas, hosted in the atelier, and of course the American brother and sister were Leo and Gertrude Stein, the latter of whom would later become extremely famous not only because of her art collection but because of the peculiar way she wrote.
Among the avant-gardists whose work Gertrude and Leo Stein fell in love with during their first years in Paris was Henri Matisse. Liking his paintings—and buying them—was an aesthetically adventurous undertaking in the 20th century’s first decade. When they saw Matisse’s Woman With a Hat at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, Gertrude knew she wanted it. Nobody else did. This major work of Matisse’s fauvist period—the term fauve, meaning “wild beast,” was originally meant to insult Matisse and others working in this brightly colored, self-consciously primitive style—was derided by many exhibition-goers. As Gertrude wrote of the scene, “People were roaring with laughter at the picture and scratching at it.”
The Steins weren’t just patrons of up-and-coming artists. They often befriended the artists whose work they bought (Matisse was one who joined their circle), and they loyally promoted them. Leo and Gertrude shared their enthusiasm for Matisse with their older brother and his wife, who bought several of his paintings. The Steins likewise introduced their friends Etta and Claribel Cone—socialites from Baltimore—to Matisse and other new French painters. Taking especially to Matisse, the Cone sisters eventually amassed one of the greatest collections of his work.
Henri Matisse was well represented at the Armory Show, with 15 pieces on view, including paintings, drawings and a sculpture. The works were, however, decidedly unpopular, causing as great a furor as Marcel Duchamp’s even more unconventional cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2. Or maybe greater: Duchamp’s piece was merely ridiculed, whereas effigies of three Matisse paintings were burned by Art Institute of Chicago students when the show traveled to their city in March 1913. The students even subjected Matisse—whom they dubbed Henry Hair Mattress—to a mock trial, charging him with “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line” and “general aesthetic aberration.”
The paintings the Chicago students found most offensive—Goldfish and Sculpture (1912), Le Luxe, II (1907) and Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (1907)—all incorporate female nudes, and surely conservative morals as well as “purely” aesthetic considerations guided their condemnation. Anatomically distorted and disturbingly off-color in more ways than one, Blue Nude retains its power to shock some viewers today. Lent to the Armory Show by Leo Stein, the painting was later acquired by the Cone sisters, who willed it to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
For art to have an impact, it must be seen, which is why gallerists are as responsible as artists for shaping art history. Those roles—art maker and art seller—were combined in Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneering fine-art photographer and the founder of a revolutionary gallery that gave European artists such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncuşi their first U.S. shows. Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1905 and at first displayed only photographs. But Stieglitz, whom a contemporary described as a “John the Baptist in the American desert of modern art,” soon broadened that agenda, changing his gallery’s name to 291 (for its address at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York) and mounting exhibits of painting and sculpture as well. Henri Matisse was one of the beneficiaries of Stieglitz’s modern-art evangelism: Matisse’s work was little known outside France before Stieglitz gave him a solo show in 1908. Just a glance at 291’s roster, which also included Henri Rousseau, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, proves art critic Robert Hughes’s contention that Stieglitz “laid the ground” for the 1913 Armory Show.
Like the organizers of the Armory Show, Alfred Stieglitz was internationalist in his tastes. Although his 291 gallery became most famous—or infamous—for the avant-garde European art it presented, it also regularly displayed emerging American artists’ work. The influential modernist watercolorist John Marin, for example, received his first one-man show there, in 1910. And 291 was the first gallery to show Georgia O’Keeffe: In 1916 Stieglitz exhibited 10 drawings by her; in 1917 he put on her first solo show. (In 1918 he became O’Keeffe’s lover, and in 1924 her husband.)
Stieglitz was also an early champion of American expressionist painter Marsden Hartley, although it’s hard to say whether Stieglitz’s support did much good for Hartley, who throughout his life struggled both financially and psychologically. A show of the artist’s paintings at 291 in 1909 was a bust; nothing sold, and Hartley was dispirited by the experience. The outcome of a 1916 Hartley show at the gallery—which featured the semiabstract paintings of his German Officer series—was worse. On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, the exhibit was denounced for its “pro-German” sympathies—dealing a severe blow to Hartley’s delicate ego.
Now remembered for bringing the latest trends in European—especially French—painting and sculpture to America’s notice, the Armory Show in fact contained more American art, with nine of 18 galleries devoted wholly to American artists. But relatively little of the American work on display was truly avant-garde. Important painters like Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast—both well represented—had indeed been influenced by French art, but that of earlier, impressionist and postimpressionist, generations. The few Americans working in current modes (for example, modernist Morton Schamberg and abstractionist Morgan Russell) were minor figures, overshadowed by the so-called ashcan artists—Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan and others—whose homegrown artistic radicalism had more to do with their gritty urban subject matter than with pictorial experimentation.
The Armory Show did capture several young artists—eventually to become giants of 20th-century American art—before they developed distinctive voices. Edward Hopper sold his first picture—the innocuously pretty Sailing (1911)—at the show. The ashcan-influenced paintings Stuart Davis exhibited at the armory scarcely portended his later joyous abstract improvisations. And two Marsden Hartley still lifes, though handsome, gave scant indication of the emotionally powerful expressionism of Hartley’s mature work.
Of all the controversial works exhibited at the Armory Show, one in particular captured the naysayers’ imagination—or lack thereof. That was French artist Marcel Duchamp’s cubist-futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. A wag famously compared it to “an explosion in a shingle factory”; Evening Sun cartoonist J.F. Griswold parodied it—rather brilliantly, it must be said—in a drawing captioned “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush-Hour at the Subway)”; and the journal American Art News offered prizes to readers who could “find the lady” in Duchamp’s fragmented image. Even former president Teddy Roosevelt lambasted it, though he mistook it for a picture of a naked man. Ironically, this torrent of outrage—some serious, some gleefully tongue-in-cheek—drew more visitors to the armory than might otherwise have come. Gallery I, where several of Duchamp’s other cubist paintings as well as work by similarly objectionable avant-gardist Francis Picabia were hung, suffered a daily wall-to-wall crush that prevented most from getting a good view of the must-see picture. And news of the scandal spread so wide so fast that a San Francisco art dealer bought Nude sight unseen during the show’s third week.
Whistler’s mother would doubtless have detested Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. You can tell just by looking at the old biddy. What her son might have thought about it and the other cubist works on view at the Armory Show is, however, an open question. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was a superlatively gifted realist painter, but his true interest, he insisted, lay not in his pictures’ figurative or narrative content but rather in the abstract aspects of their composition—line, color, juxtaposition of forms. That’s why he often used such words as harmony, study and arrangement when naming his paintings. And though some of Whistler’s works are vividly colored, others tend—like Duchamp’s Staircase—toward the monochromatic.
Everyone knows Whistler’s most famous painting as Whistler’s Mother, but he titled it Arrangement in Grey and Black. His mother’s portrait—which had drawn its share of ridicule when first exhibited—was not in the Armory Show, but four other paintings by Whistler were, including one, a picture of a young girl, characteristically entitled Study in Rose and Brown. It’s easy to imagine that, freed from the realist constraints of the 19th century, Whistler might have become an abstract painter.