Quinn, John (1870–1924), lawyer, art collector, and patron of literature and the visual arts, was born 24 April 1870 in Tiffin, Ohio, USA, eldest of eight children (of whom two boys and four girls survived infancy) of James William Quinn (d. 1877), a baker, who had emigrated to America from Co. Limerick, and Mary Quinn (née Quinlan) (d. 1902), native of Co. Cork. Reared in nearby Fostoria, where his father developed a thriving bakery business, while attending Fostoria high school he developed a precocious interest in contemporary British literature, spending hundreds of dollars on first editions. After obtaining law degrees from Georgetown (1893) and Harvard (1895) universities, he moved to New York, emerging within ten years as one of the city's leading financial lawyers. He opened his own practice in 1906 with offices in the building of the National Bank of Commerce, the country's second largest, from which he received a handsome annual retainer.
His successful and lucrative legal career notwithstanding, Quinn is chiefly important for his friendship with, and patronage of, many of the leading literary figures of the early twentieth century, and as one of the pioneering collectors and promoters of modern art. His patronage rarely consisting of outright monetary gifts, Quinn supported artists largely by purchasing and commissioning works, and writers by purchasing manuscripts. Widely erudite in literature and philosophy, and already an avid collector of books and pictures, he commenced his career as an actively engaged patron during his first voyage abroad, to England and Ireland (1902). Sweeping with magisterial energy through Irish cultural circles, he attended a feis ceoil in Co. Galway, signed the autograph tree at Coole Park, and lavishly bought and commissioned paintings from John Butler Yeats (qv) and Jack Yeats (qv). Assuming the role of unofficial American agent for the Irish cultural revival, through vigorous promotion he helped cultivate a wider awareness in America of Irish matters, and of specific Irish cultural and political figures. He was the driving force within a short-lived New York branch of the Irish Literary Society (1902–3), which foundered when New York's catholic archbishop refused to serve as an honorary vice-president alongside William Butler Yeats (qv), the society's founder, but a protestant and, according to the archbishop, author of heretical works. Quinn organised a North American lecture tour for Yeats (1903–4) that earned the poet some $3,000, and arranged similar tours for other Irish cultural emissaries; the 1905 tour of Douglas Hyde (qv) constituted the first significant promotion in America of the Gaelic League.
Quinn facilitated the American copyrighting of works by Yeats, John Millington Synge (qv), and others, often by arranging publication in limited editions, and dealt with legal problems surrounding copyright. He regularly bought large numbers of Jack Yeats's paintings, as well as those of George Russell (qv) (‘Æ’) and Nathaniel Hone (qv), and arranged the first American exhibition of Jack Yeats's work (1904); Yeats spoke of him as ‘the noble buyer’. He persuaded organisers of the 1905 Irish industrial exposition at New York's Madison Square Garden to include craftwork of the Dún Emer society operated by the two Yeats sisters, Susan (qv) (‘Lily’) and Elizabeth (qv) (‘Lolly’), and loaned seventy-eight paintings from his own collection. To parallel the ‘RHA’ assignation of some artists, to the nameplates of Jack Yeats's pictures he appended ‘GIP’, signifying ‘Great Irish Painter’. While finding Jack the most congenial of the Yeatses, Quinn considered Willie the most impressive, asserting in 1907 that the poet was ‘the one man of absolute genius I have known personally and well’ (quoted in Reid, 18). His suspicions that W. B. Yeats had attempted to seduce his mistress occasioned a five-year breach in their friendship (1909–14), eventually healed owing to the lady's entreaties. Yeats dedicated his second volume of autobiography, The trembling of the veil (1922), to Quinn, his ‘friend and helper’. Quinn failed to dissuade John Butler Yeats from emigrating to New York in 1908 at age 70, but then sponsored his American career; the two were firm but not easy friends, the elder Yeats describing Quinn as ‘the crossest man in the world and the kindest’ (quoted in Reid, 58). In 1914 Quinn arranged to buy manuscripts from W. B. Yeats, depositing payment into a trust fund that helped support the habitually improvident elder Yeats until his death in 1922.
Quinn felt a particular affinity for J. M. Synge both as an artist and a friend; his spirited defence within Irish-American circles of ‘The playboy of the western world’ (1907) aroused the lasting antagonism of the veteran Fenian, John Devoy (qv), who had attacked the play venomously. During the Abbey theatre's stormy 1911 American tour, Quinn intervened with the mayor of Chicago to prevent a threatened suppression of the ‘Playboy’, and in Philadelphia successfully argued a writ of habeas corpus to free the Abbey troupe from imprisonment for staging a sacrilegious and immoral performance. It is reputed that during this Abbey tour he had a brief affair with Augusta Gregory (qv), with whom his relationship was ever mutually admiring and intimate. The ‘Playboy’ controversy confirmed the waning of Quinn's enthusiasm for Irish affairs, which thereafter ceased to be the primary focus of his cultural interests. Disillusioned by factionalism, parochialism, and anti-intellectualism in Irish political and cultural life, he blamed the ‘medieval’ influence of Irish catholicism for having disastrously distorted the national character and straitened the national intellect. He supported the 1912 home rule bill as a necessary compromise, and denounced the 1916 rising as lunatic and megalomaniac, while commending the idealism and purity of motive of Patrick Pearse (qv), whom he had known. He intervened strongly to seek clemency for Roger Casement (qv); his elegy for Casement was widely reprinted, and praised by various shades of Irish and British opinion. Initially outraged by the rumours of Casement's homosexuality, he was shown photographs of relevant portions of the ‘black diaries’ by British diplomats, and concluded them to be authentic.
After 1910 Quinn concentrated on collecting paintings and sculpture. Eventually acquiring some 2,500 pieces, he took particular interest in the French avant-garde, and owned many of the capital works of post-impressionism and early modernism, by such artists as Seurat, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Matisse, and Brancusi. A key organiser of the landmark NY armory show (1913) – the first major exposition of modernist art in America – he secured the exposition venue and delivered the opening address. His efforts facilitated wider acceptance of modernist art by cultural arbiters and the general public. He purchased manuscripts of Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and helped finance several of Pound's publishing ventures, including the New York-based Little Review. His patronage of James Joyce (qv) represented a conjunction of his interests in modernist literature and in Ireland, and his empathy with the writer's artistic subversion of Irish catholicism and nationalism. He purchased from Joyce the manuscripts of the play ‘Exiles’, and the novels A portrait of the artist as a young man and Ulysses, the latter for a total of $1,200, paid in installments during the novel's composition. However, his personal relationship with Joyce lacked warmth, the writer's haughty manner of accepting favours as the due of genius clashing with Quinn's vanity. Quinn warned that possible suppression of the Little Review by American censorship for its serial publication of Ulysses might obviate publication of the complete work in book form, and advised either radical editing or withdrawal from magazine serialisation. When, his advice unheeded, the magazine's editors were prosecuted for publishing the ‘Nausikaa’ episode, he argued their defence before a New York court (February 1921), which imposed a fine and prohibited further publication. Though Quinn received some $110,000 for his Conrad manuscripts during a five-month clearing-out sale of some two-thirds of his personal library of 18,000 items (1923–4), the returns generally were disappointing; the Ulysses manuscript, selling under the reserve price at $1,975, yielded a profit of $478.75, shared evenly by prior agreement with Joyce, who thought the sum derisory.
Preternaturally energetic and driven, Quinn was prone to render unsolicited, if informed, advice regarding the subject, style, and execution of the art he patronised. A tall, slender, commanding figure, despite premature baldness he was classically handsome, with lively blue eyes, an elegant carriage, and imperious demeanour. Unmarried, he commanded considerable repute as a womaniser, and left bequests to two long-time mistresses. He had surgery for rectal cancer in 1918; after falling ill again with cancer, he died 28 July 1924 in New York. Several selections from his voluminous correspondence with the many notables of his acquaintance (including W. B. Yeats and Maud Gonne (qv)) have been published in books and scholarly journals. Under the terms of his will, his art collection was liquidated by public auction and private sale (1926–7), and converted into cash for his heirs. Some eighty pieces were reassembled for a major exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (1978). Selected copies of his autograph letters from people of note (the originals of which were sold) were deposited in New York public library, which also holds his unsold manuscripts; a smaller collection is in Indiana University.