Part III: The year of contradictions

Henry C K Liu

PART 1: Ruthless Empire Builders
PART 2: A Monetary Coup d'etat

The year the US Federal Reserve System came into existence, 1913, was also the year the Armory Show in New York introduced modern art to the United States. American painter Arthur B Davies (1862-1928) was the principal organizer of the Armory Show, which revolutionized American art by introducing Modernism to the viewing public. In 1911, Davies and others, concerned that their increasingly modern works were becoming unacceptable to the conservative mainstream National Academy of Design in New York, formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. They planned to launch a large independent show devoted to contemporary works. Davies, with fellow artist Walt Kuhn and critic Walter Pach, were determined that the exhibition should include the European avant-garde as well as the American independents. The result of their efforts was the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, which opened in New York on February 12, 1913, in the 69th Regiment Armory at 25th Street and Lexington Avenue, in the midst of frenzy maneuvering by the money trust to bring about the birth of a central bank.

With about 1,600 works, the show transformed New York's and perhaps America's attitude toward modern art from apathy to excited contention. Most critics at the time found the works "insane" and "degenerate". The New York Times warned that the show could "disrupt, degrade, if not destroy not only art but literature and society as well". A Chicago newspaper "light-heartedly" suggested that visitors to the show "smoke two pipefuls of 'hop' and sniff cocaine". However, it aroused the curiosity if not interest of the public, 70,000 of whom came to see it in New York, Chicago and Boston.

By the time the Armory Show was being organized, Davies and Lillie P Bliss had become good friends. Six weeks before the show opened, and probably at the suggestion of Davies, Bliss purchased a painting and a pastel by Edgar Degas and an oil by Jean Renoir from the New York branch of the Durand-Ruel Galleries. All three works would be exhibited in the Armory Show. The Degas painting, Jockeys on Horseback Before Distant Hills, formerly called Racecourse, a small oil of 1884 for which Bliss paid US$20,000, was the work the Museum of Modern Art would eventually exchange to acquire Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Born Lizzie Plummer Bliss in Fall River, Massachusetts, on April 11, 1864, she used the name Lizzie only when signing checks and her will and was known to her friends as Lillie. She was the younger of two daughters and the second of four children of Cornelius Newton Bliss (1833-1911) of Fall River and Mary Plummer Bliss (1836-1923) of Boston. Her father, a successful textile merchant, moved the family to a six-story house at 29 East 37th Street in the Murray Hill section of New York when Lillie was two. The Blisses were comfortably affluent and politically influential. However, despite their prominence, the family lived outside the public eye, as Boston Brahmins tended to do. Cornelius Bliss was one of a coterie of Republican leaders who were in the forefront of party affairs for over a generation. He was treasurer of the Republican National Committee from 1892 to 1908, served as chairman of the New York State Republican Party, represented New York at Republican conventions, and refused offers to run for governor and mayor of New York on several occasions. He was interior secretary in president William McKinley's first cabinet, serving from 1897 to 1899, but rejected an offer to be McKinley's vice-presidential running mate in 1900 and supported Theodore Roosevelt, who became president when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. During the time that her father worked in Washington, Lillie often acted as his hostess at his infrequent but lavish parties.

In New York, Lillie regularly attended concerts, went to the theater and frequented art galleries. Throughout her youth the emphasis at home was on music, and her love of music, both classical and contemporary, led her to support young pianists and opera singers and to help found the Juilliard Music Foundation (now the Juilliard School). When she believed in someone's career or talent she supported them unequivocally and often anonymously. An avid reader, she was fluent in French and an accomplished pianist.

One of Lillie's early connections with the visual arts was probably related to her father's membership in the Union League Club, which still functions today as a prestigious conservative club, of which Mr Bliss was president from 1902 to 1906. It organized exhibitions of works by living artists, lent by members, artists and galleries such as Durand-Ruel and Knoedler; for example, in 1891, 34 works by Claude Monet were shown. These shows were publicly advertised, open to all and well attended.

However, it was her friendship with Dr Christian Archibald Herter (1865-1910) that bridged the gap between music and art for Lillie. She and Herter shared a serious interest in music; he was as accomplished a cellist as she was a pianist, but additionally, Herter was educated and interested in art, having been brought up in an art-conscious home. Herter, a physician and distinguished biochemist, was credited with helping to establish the study of biochemistry as a separate discipline in the United States. Through his friendship with John D Rockefeller Jr, Herter in 1901 became a charter member of the board of directors of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in New York. Lillie's closeness to the Herter family resulted in her meeting Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Adele Herter, Christian Archibald's sister-in-law, was a painter and friend of Abby's, whose portrait she painted during the summer of 1907. In March 1911, Abby Rockefeller and Adele Herter were two of seven women who signed the certificate of incorporation for the Women's Cosmopolitan Club in New York, and in 1911-12 Lillie was listed as a member. In 1929, Abby and Lillie were among the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Lillie's life changed dramatically when she met Davies. Over the next two decades she became his faithful and principal patron and confidante. Davies was a romantic artist who was widely admired during his lifetime for his symbolic pictures of female nudes in idyllic landscapes. He was handsome, charismatic, articulate and persuasive, and he seems to have especially appealed to women. Through his travels abroad from 1893, he knew about contemporary artistic trends in Europe. He was a galvanizing force in New York, and his advice was sought by dealers, collectors and artists. He was also a confident collector in his own right: from a Cezanne exhibition held at Alfred Stieglitz' gallery in 1911, he bought the only picture that was sold.

By 1916, Lillie began to see and buy with the eye of a connoisseur. Her increasing self-confidence as a collector is evident in her purchase of bold works by Paul Cezanne, the artist she especially admired. At the time of her death, she owned 26 of his works, many of them now considered pivotal to an understanding of his oeuvre. In January 1916, she acquired eight of the 17 watercolors in the Montross Gallery's Cezanne exhibition, in addition to an oil painting, Bottle of Liqueur, previously known as Fruit and Wine (circa 1890). The works in this show, which attracted the favorable attention of artists, were selected by French critic Felix Feneon. Among the watercolors on view, Lillie bought the magnificent House Among Trees (circa 1900) and Foliage (1895). Lillie was unconcerned that the reviews were less than sympathetic during the time it was on display since reviews, positive or negative, did not influence her purchases.

Lillie's enthusiasm for Cezanne's work never wavered. Between 1920 and 1926, she purchased six more of his paintings through Marius de Zayas, a Mexican artist turned dealer who had learned the art business as a protege of Stieglitz: the large and important Bather (circa 1885); Pines and Rocks (circa 1896-1900); Still Life with Ginger Jar, Sugar Bowl, and Oranges (1902-06); Dominique Aubert, the Artist's Uncle, formerly called Man in a Blue Cap (Uncle Dominic) (circa 1866); and two small gems, Pears and Knife (1877-78) and Carafe, Milk Can, Bowl and Orange, formerly called The Water Can (1879-80).

Two notable Cezannes in Lillie's collection were purchased at the 1922 auction of privately owned modern paintings at New York's Plaza Hotel. Many of the bids were disappointing, and owners had to buy back a number of the offerings. Lillie paid $21,000 for Still Life with Apples (1895-98), the highest price paid at the sale. It was her most expensive purchase to date, and Lillie was adventurous to buy it, since it was considered to be unfinished. This painting was one of her favorite works, and is today a major work of the Museum of Modern Art. She also purchased Cezanne's Portrait of Madame Cezanne (1883-85). Both were originally owned by Ambroise Vollard, an eminent French art dealer, publisher and entrepreneur, and had been lent anonymously to the 1921 Metropolitan Museum exhibition. Both have impeccable provenances; Lillie bought what she loved but was mindful of the good taste of respected prior owners.

In 1921, John Quinn and Bliss were among the collectors who urged Bryson Burroughs, the curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to organize a loan exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, which opened to the public in September. The protests were scathing, and the fury, of the press and of a self-appointed Committee of Citizens and Supporters of the museum, was widely reported in New York. Quinn lent 26 works to the show, and Lillie, anonymously, lent 12, including five Cezannes. The show was criticized as "dangerous", and Quinn was accused of masterminding the exhibition. In response to the uproar, Quinn denounced these criticisms as the Ku Klux Klan-inspired ravings of ignorant "lunatics". The Quinn collection made such a profound impression on the young Alfred H Barr Jr when he saw it at the memorial exhibition in January 1926 that, during his tenure at the Museum of Modern Art, where he would become the founding director in 1929, he sought to acquire important Quinn pictures when they became available. Bliss also acquired works by other artists of Cezanne's generation. Some time before 1926, she bought Paul Gauguin's The Moon and the Earth (Hino Te Fatou, 1893). This painting was so reviled by critics of the 1921 Metropolitan Museum show that it was illustrated in The World as typical of the "vile, Bolshevist" work included.

Arthur B Davies died suddenly in Italy on October 23, 1928. Commemorative exhibitions were held during the next two years in several venues, and Lillie Bliss lent generously to all of them. In April 1929, Davies' collection was sold at auction, Lillie Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller being among the buyers, and Abby had a Davies show in her new private gallery in her house. Abby had known Davies for only a few years, but she credited him with encouraging her to acquire modern art, from 1924 on. Davies' death, and the sale of his collections not long after the dispersal of the Quinn collection, combined with the steadfast reluctance of the Metropolitan Museum regularly to show and support late-19th- and 20th-century art, made the time ripe seriously to consider establishing an institution dedicated to exhibiting modern art in New York.

At the end of May 1929, Abby invited Lillie, their mutual friend Mary Quinn Sullivan (no relation to John Quinn) and A Conger Goodyear to her home to discuss founding a museum for modern art in New York. Mary Sullivan was an art teacher, dealer and collector. Goodyear was a collector of modern art and a former board member at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, New York; he agreed to head the venture and became chairman. His presence at the meeting was apparently due to Walt Kuhn, who, in a letter of July 9, 1929, to his wife, Vera, took credit for the fact that Goodyear was made chairman of this exploratory committee. Lillie, the leading collector among them, became vice president; Abby, the truly wealthy one, was appointed treasurer. A short time later three more persons were asked to join them: Paul J Sachs, an eminent art history professor at Harvard and scion of the investment firm Goldman, Sachs, also a collector and an acquaintance of Abby; Frank Crowninshield, a publisher and friend of Lillie; and Mrs W Murray Crane, a friend of both women. As a group, they had the knowledge, resources, dedication, status and efficiency that would result in the museum's opening to the public five months later.

Ill with cancer, Lillie visited the museum's Toulouse-Lautrec/Redon exhibition on the day it closed, March 2, 1931. The then 29-year-old Alfred Barr, the defining director of the Modern, and Bliss saw each other often during the short time they were acquainted, and they had much in common. Like her, he deeply loved music; they went to the movies and attended concerts together. Lillie must have greatly respected Barr's brilliance and enthusiasm; after all, she planned to leave her collection in his charge. Unfortunately, however, their relationship would never mature, as did that of Barr and Abby Rockefeller, on March 12, 1931, Lillie died. Lillie Bliss could not afford to support the museum financially in the same way as Abby Rockefeller. However, in bequeathing her collection to the museum three months before its first anniversary, she had quietly and secretly decided what form her support would take. Her will stipulated that the Museum of Modern Art would have to raise an endowment to make her gift a reality.

Specifically, the will stated that the works cited in her bequest would become "the absolute property" of the museum once it had been established "to the full and complete satisfaction" of the trustees of her estate that the museum was "sufficiently endowed ... on a firm financial basis and in the hands of a competent board". She also stipulated that two of her Cezannes - Still Life with Ginger Jar, Sugar Bowl, and Oranges and Still Life with Apples - and her The Laundress (Honore Daumier) could never be sold or otherwise disposed of, and that if the Modern did not want them, they "would become the property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art". The Cezannes remain at the Modern and the Daumier went to the Met in 1947.

Two months after her death, the 12th exhibition held by the Museum of Modern Art, from May 13 to October 6, 1931, was a "Memorial Exhibition: The Collection of the Late Miss Lizzie P Bliss, Vice President of the Museum". Works by 24 artists were selected, and a small catalogue was issued. By the time the show closed, 32,144 people bad seen it. The public opening was preceded by a memorial service held in the galleries and attended by 300 guests.

In March 1934, the trustees met the financial terms of the Bliss will, her bequest was accessioned and a Museum of Modern Art with a permanent collection became a reality. In order for the museum to secure the bequest, the estate required that the museum raise $1 million. However, because of the difficulty of raising funds during the Depression, this initial sum was reduced to $600,000. The money came from several sources: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, $200,000 (given to her by her husband for this purpose); the Carnegie Foundation, $100,000; the other trustees, $200,000; and an anonymous donor, $100,000. The anonymous donor was Abby's son, Nelson A Rockefeller, who would later become very active in the museum. He made the donation because he wanted his mother to know that someone in the family besides herself was deeply supportive of the new museum. He told his mother of his gift two months later.

Two years after the museum had moved to its new quarters, a limestone townhouse at 11 West 53rd Street, the Bliss bequest was shown in its entirety. From May 14 to September 12, 1934, the exhibition was seen by 30,445 people.

The Lillie P Bliss bequest ensured that the museum had a foundation upon which to build its future. Her action reflected her confidence in her friends to secure the endowment and in Alfred Barr to make her dream come true. Her courage and intelligence are reflected in the paintings she left to the public. The most important works in her collection are the French paintings and drawings from the latter part of the 19th century by artists whose present fame has overcome the neglect or derision they often endured during their lifetimes: Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Mabel Dodge also helped organize the 1913 Armory Show, which introduced Picasso, Henri Matisse, Cubism and Dada to the American scene. The rich hostess and journalist ran her salon at 23 Fifth Avenue, where left-wing intellectuals and activists met. This included John Reed; Louise Bryant; investigative reporter Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities, 1904); poet Max Eastman, editor of The Masses; artist John Sloan; Walter Lippmann, who as an influential columnist would oppose the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well as McCarthyism; Margaret Sanger; Bill Haywood; and Emma Goldman. Three months after the armory Show, Dodge was among those who supported 1,200 striking textile workers from Paterson, New Jersey, who staged a pageant in New York's Madison Square Garden to dramatize their demands. Paterson was known as the Silk City of America. More than one-third of its 73,000 workers held jobs in silk factories where high-speed automatic looms were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1911 silk manufacturers in Paterson decided that workers, who had previously run two looms, were now required to operate four simultaneously. Workers complained that this would cause unemployment and consequently would bring down wages.

On January 27, 1913, 800 employees of the Doherty Silk Mill went on strike when four members of the workers' committee were fired for trying to organize a meeting with the company's management to discuss the four-loom system. Within a week, all silk workers were on strike and the 300 mills in the town were forced to close. During the dispute more than 3,000 pickets were arrested, most of them receiving a 10-day sentence in local jails. Two workers were killed by private detectives hired by the mill workers. These men were arrested but were never brought to trial. However, the strike fund was unable to raise enough money and, in July 1913, the workers were starved into submission.

Bill Haywood of the American Socialist Party and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union who was active in the campaign against the conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, arrived in Paterson and took over the running of the strike for the Industrial Workers of the Work (IWW). John Reed, a well-known socialist journalist, arrived in the town to report the strike. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in Paterson County Jail. Other left-wing journalists such as Walter Lippmann and Mabel Dodge arrived to show solidarity with Reed and to support the demand that reporters should be free to report industrial disputes. After World War I, Dodge married Tony Lujan, a native American, and established an artist colony in Taos, New Mexico. In 1922, D H Lawrence stayed at Taos, where he wrote The Plumed Serpent (1926). The main character in his short story "The Woman Who Rode Away" was based on Dodge.

Martin Green, a writer attuned to cultural juxtapositions, links the Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant with the argument that modern art and revolutionary politics share a spiritual, transcendental goal. Green detailed the scene inside the salon of Mabel Dodge, who was ensconced in respectability yet actively subverted it, as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller did in a more obtuse manner. He also reported vividly the scene at Wobblies union halls where people of any race or nationality were welcome and workers' poems were composed on the spot.

Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, and who was the only American to be buried inside the Kremlin, wrote: "All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others ... and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play." He put down his beloved Louise Bryant (1885-1936) for writing a glowing review about the Armory Show while the world was on the edge of war and the possibility of changing the world was imminent. Reed had this deep sense of social responsibility to inform and radicalize readers and he was irritated with Bryant for her lack of interest in, passion for, and commitment to the ideals of the workers' movement, for being interested in stale bourgeois ideas about nothing and which would do nothing.

Green argues that these two events were the last manifestations of pre-World War I radicalism. They were linked by some of the same personalities: John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman, Isadora Duncan, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and more. There was a touch of the aristocratic salon in the opulent antique furniture and the sumptuous buffets. Yet Dodge's passion was not cultivated conversation but free speech, the left-wing political cause of the moment that was also the left-wing cultural cause. Because the censorship laws of the time were tied up with the repression of radicalism in both politics and art, the battle for bold, honest, forthright truth-telling allied soapbox rabble rousers to birth-control advocates to modern artists. Walter Lippmann came from the Olympian precincts of The New Republic to partake of the free-speech evenings, and so did anarchist leader Emma Goldman, birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, and French painter Jean Crotti (newly arrived from a Europe being ravaged by World War I and, like many fellow Parisian expatriates, besotted with the energy of Manhattan).

In 1913, a leftist radicalism burst forth with revolution in art and revolt by labor. Simultaneously, a rightist radicalism quietly took form through a monetary coup d'etat, the establishment of a central bank. It was a year of deep contradictions.

NEXT: Modern art and Socialism