Quinn was an important patron of chief figures in Post-impressionism and literary Modernism; a major collector of modern art and original manuscripts; and the first to exhibit these works after winning legal battles against censorship and cultural isolation. In the 1920s he owned the largest single collection of modern European paintings in the world. He fought key legal battles that opened American culture to 20th century art movements, including his Congressional appeals to overturn the Payne–Aldrich Tariff Act. He staged the first great exhibit of European modern art in America at the (Fightin' Irish) Armory in 1913.
Quinn was born in Tiffin, Ohio to an Irish baker and grocer, James W. Quinn, and his wife, Mary. He grew up in nearby Fostoria, Ohio, where his parents relocated in 1871. His paternal grandparents James and Mary (née Madigan) Quinn, natives of County Limerick settled in Tiffin in 1851, where the grandfather was a blacksmith.
After graduating from the University of Michigan and Georgetown University Law School, followed by a degree in international relations from Harvard University, Quinn became a successful New York lawyer, getting involved in New York’s Tammany Hall politics, but when his candidate did not get the nomination at the 1912 Democratic National Convention he became disgusted with the whole system and became an art patron, art collector, and collector of manuscripts. His French adviser for Post-Impressionist art was Henri-Pierre Roche, who later wrote the novel Jules et Jim. Quinn and Roche worked together to develop the famous 1913 Armory Show.
Quinn was a principal supporter and purchaser of manuscripts of novelist Joseph Conrad during his lifetime. He met Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1902, and became a major supporter, helping him found the Abbey Theatre. In the 1920s Quinn was a legal defender of the novel Ulysses by James Joyce, and defended The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. He was a friend of American poet Ezra Pound.
According to author Richard Spence, Quinn was a supporter of the Irish nationalist cause and associated with figures such as John Devoy and Roger Casement, although he had reportedly worked for British Intelligence services before, during, and after World War I. In this role he acted as case officer for, among others, Aleister Crowley, who was an agent provocateur posing as an Irish nationalist in order to infiltrate anti-British groups of Irish and Germans in the United States.
In 1913 he convinced the United States Congress to overturn the 1909 Payne–Aldrich Tariff Act, which retained the duty on foreign works of art less than 20 years old, discouraging Americans from collecting modern European art. A huge and controversial event, the 1913 Armory Show (officially The International Exhibition of Modern Art) in New York City included examples of Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Cubism. Quinn opened the exhibition with the words:
... it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art.
In 1913 Quinn represented Margaret Kieley in a $2,000,000 legal contest over the Last Will and Testament of her husband Timothy J. Kieley's estate. Margaret prevailed because her husband's nephews and nieces could not produce vital witnesses and defaulted.
In the early 1920s Quinn represented Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap for their publication in The Little Review of serial portions of James Joyce's Ulysses, which the U.S. Post Office had found "obscene".
Quinn died at age 54 of intestinal cancer, and was buried by his family in Fostoria, Ohio. Leaving no heirs, he willed that his art collection be auctioned off and dispersed among museums and collectors around the world.
In 1927, an exhibition and sale of Quinn's art collection took place in New York City. The event included works by Henri Matisse, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Robert Delaunay, Jacques Villon, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Gino Severini, Marie Laurencin, Constantin Brâncuși, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, in addition to American artists Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, Marsden Hartley, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Max Weber. The sale was conducted by Otto Bernet and Hiram H. Parke at the American Art Galleries. A catalog was published for the occasion by the American Art Association.John Quinn, The Irish Home-rule Convention, An American Opinion, The Macmillan company, 1917 (full text online)
William M. Murphy. Prodigal Father: the Life of John Butler Yeats (1839–1922) (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978; paperback 1979; revised paperback, Syracuse University Press, 2001)
Richard and Janis Londraville. Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Robert Foster and Her Circle of Friends (Syracuse University Press, 2001)
Janis and Richard Londraville, eds. John Quinn: Selected Irish Writers from his Library (Syracuse University Press, 2001)
Benjamin Lawrence Reid (1968) The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends (1969 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography)