by Kim Orcutt

Oscar Cesare (Swedish-American, 1885–1948), “Crowd Before ‘Nude Descendant un Escalier’ by Marcel Duchamp,” in “What Cesare Saw at the Armory Art Show,” The Sun (New York), February 23, 1913, p. 11. From the Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Oscar Cesare (Swedish-American, 1885–1948), “Crowd Before ‘Nude Descendant un Escalier’ by Marcel Duchamp,” in “What Cesare Saw at the Armory Art Show,” The Sun (New York), February 23, 1913, p. 11. From the Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Walt Kuhn, one of the Armory Show’s chief organizers, recalled the great variety of visitors who came to the 1913 exhibition “to be refreshed by the excitement.” Contemporary critics agreed: according to The Independent, watching “the effect of the pictures on the crowd” in the Armory was more interesting than looking at the pictures. [1] The New York Evening Post described the spectrum of reactions: “In half an hour’s visit to the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory one may meet with ridicule, rage, helpless questioning, and savage enthusiasm, but not with indifference.” [2] The eldest son of financier J. P. Morgan stormed around the galleries protesting that it was a damned outrage to have to pay a quarter to see this stuff. Famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso thrilled visitors by drawing caricatures of the paintings on view.

The most famous visitor was former president Theodore Roosevelt, who toured the exhibition on inauguration day, March 4, after having lost the 1912 presidential election to Woodrow Wilson. One artist remembered him waving his arms and stomping through the galleries proclaiming “that’s not art!” He wrote an article titled “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition” that praised the liveliness and individuality that he saw in the Armory, but also compared cubist pictures to P.T. Barnum’s faked mermaid as a trick played on Americans. [3]

Several writers noted that many people visited again and again, “drawn by some mysterious force which they themselves could not wholly account for.” [4] Lillie Bliss, one of the future founders of the Museum of Modern Art, attended daily, and it was said that socialite Lady Ribblesdale, formerly Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV, visited every day before breakfast. The Armory Show was a cultural phenomenon unlike anything New York had ever seen before. As author Carl Van Vechten wrote: “It was the first, and possibly the last, exhibition of paintings held in New York which everybody attended. Everybody went and everybody talked about it.” [5]

[1] “The Cube Root of Art,” The Independent 74: 3353 (March 6, 1913): 493.

[2] “International Art,” New York Evening Post, February 20, 1913, 9.

[3] Theodore Roosevelt, “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition,” Outlook, March 29, 1913, 718.

[4] J. Nilsen Laurvik, “New Paths in Art,” The International 7, no. 4 (April 1913): 89.

[5] Carl Van Vechten, Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), 123.

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.

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