Students at the School of the Art Institute gather in front of the Art Institute to protest the Armory Show of 1913.
In 1913, the Art Institute had the distinction of being the only American museum to host one of the most important exhibitions of the last century, called the International Exhibition of Modern Art—better known today as the Armory Show. This show was the first to bring radically new avant-garde art to the American public. Controversial, risky, scandalous, and a defining moment in art history, the Armory Show introduced the United States to Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, and many other artists whose works you can see in these galleries.
The Art Institute in the early 20th century.
The Armory Show had three venues: the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City (February 17–March 15), the Art Institute (March 24–April 16), and the Copley Society in Boston (April 23 to May 14). It was organized by a small group of progressive East Coast artists who were determined to hold exhibitions with a wider, more representative range of contemporary European and American artists in the face of an American art establishment with more conservative tastes.
Floorplan of the second floor of the Art Institute, 1913. Yellow areas denote Armory Show galleries.
The Art Institute was the only museum to host this radical exhibition and its presentation at the museum marked Chicago as a place for the new and the modern for many years to come. The Armory Show occupied nine galleries on the second floor of the Art Institute: three galleries for American art; one for the French symbolist Odilon Redon; one for cubist works of art; one for French modernists such as Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, and Maurice Denis; and one for Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. The remainder of the galleries were filled with works from England, Ireland, and Germany.
Cover of the Armory Show catalogue.
The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue that listed 453 works of art; there were actually 634 works but catalogue organizers grouped prints and drawings as single entries. The president of the Armory Show’s organizing body, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, was American artist Arthur B. Davies; quoted in the preface to the catalogue he wrote that the purpose of the exhibition was to give “the public here the opportunity to see for themselves the results of new inﬂuences at work in other countries in an art way” so that “the intelligent may judge for themselves.”
Installation shot of the Armory Show gallery devoted to the French modernists, prominently featuring the work of Henri Matisse.
The works of Henri Matisse occupied a prominent place in the galleries—the first gallery at the top of the Art Institute’s Grand Staircase—and in public consciousness. According to Walter Pach, chief sales agent for the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, this was the most important gallery in Arthur Davies’s plan, for Matisse had a “splendid long wall . . . to himself . . . the first thing you see as you enter. Davies made the plan for hanging . . . and designed it that Matisse should first meet the eye and set a pace—annunciate the character of the exhibition." Given this scene, it is perhaps not surprising that Matisse was the most talked about—and vilified—artist of the exhibition in Chicago.
Installation shot of the Armory Show gallery devoted to Cubism.
Cubism as a movement received its own gallery, featuring the Chicago debut of such artists as Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso. The gallery also contained sculpture by Alexandre Archipenko, Constantin Brâncusi, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Many of these works are now housed in such museums as the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Several of the works in this gallery are now in the collection of the Art Institute, thanks to the private collector Arthur Jerome Eddy, who was also a driving force behind the exhibition.
The cover of The Cubies’ A B C, written by Mary Mills and Harvey Lyall (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913).
The Armory Show spawned many additional publications and special issues of leading American art magazines. One such book was The Cubies’ A B C, a satire of modern art featuring three geometric figures that personified the new movement. Written by Mary Mills and Harvey Lyall, and dedicated to the AAPS, it was designed as a children’s ABC book with cartoons and accompanying verse for each letter of the alphabet. “M is for Matisse’s Mam’selle Marguerite, / (With whom all the Cubies are madly in love;) / Her manner is so prepossessing and sweet / That if she but had them, we’d fall at her feet!”
Harriet Monroe, "Bedlam in Art," Chicago Sunday Tribune, February 16, 1913.
By the time the exhibition arrived in Chicago, the audience in the city was well informed about the exhibition due to its coverage in the newspapers and magazines in New York City. While many Chicago newspapers dismissed and sensationalized the exhibition, public opinion was much more nuanced and varied. Walter Pach, the AAPS sales agent, reported to a collector, "You would be astounded at the amount of intelligence I find in my rounds of the galleries . . . even as a small fraction of the comment, it more than makes up for the idiots." Harriet Monroe, who in 1912 founded Poetry magazine, was at the time an art critic for the Chicago Daily Tribune, and in that paper’s pages she made the effort to understand and explain works of art that had been ridiculed elsewhere. (However, the following day the Chicago Tribune ran a less tempered assessment of the exhibition titled "Art Show Open to Freaks.")
School of the Art Institute students gather at the museum to protest the Armory Show.
On April 16, 1913, the last day of the exhibition, students from the School of the Art Institute staged an enormous protest, perhaps fueled by the negative option of the School’s faculty members, to criticize the works of art in the exhibition and denounce the circus-like atmosphere of the Armory Show. Much of the press supported the students. At 4:00 that day, the protest moved to the museum’s south portico, where Henri Matisse (Henry Hairmatress) was subjected to a mock trial. Accused of “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title,” Hairmatress was found guilty, and reproductions of his paintings were burned.