Armory Show Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Exposure of the U.S. public to revolutionary European art movements encouraged the expansion of museums and inspired a generation of American artists. The show came to be hailed as one of the most important events in the world of twentieth century American art.

Summary of Event

On a cold February day in New York in 1913, U.S. art ended its infancy and began its meteoric rise to world recognition in an old, large, drafty armory. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, as the Armory Show was officially called, opened in the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory at 25th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City on February 17, 1913. The exhibition’s catalog listed 1,090 works by 306 artists, but as befits a revolutionary event, latecomers were admitted even after the show began, and several hundred more works of art were exhibited before the show ended. It was estimated that seventy-five thousand persons attended the show and saw, for the first time, revolutionary new art from Europe. Even the artists who participated had little inkling of the show’s enormous influence on U.S. art and culture. Probably no single event, either before or after, has ever had such a decisive effect on the art of the nation. Art;Armory Show (1913) Armory Show (1913) [kw]Armory Show (Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913) Art;Armory Show (1913) Armory Show (1913) [g]United States;Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913: Armory Show[03350] [c]Arts;Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913: Armory Show[03350] Kuhn, Walt Davies, Arthur B. Pach, Walter Prendergast, Maurice Brazil Duchamp, Marcel Dodge, Mabel Stieglitz, Alfred

At the beginning of the twentieth century, American art was provincial and academic. It reflected a prosperous and secure society, a sureness of technique, and a preference for strict representation. Impressionism, which had burst upon Europe in 1870, had been the most recent artistic movement to reach the United States. In the first decade of the twentieth century, revolutionary new techniques in art were introduced in Paris, and the followers of Henri Matisse Matisse, Henri created the movement called Fauvism. Fauvism Art movements;Fauvism The artists known as the Fauves, or the “wild beasts,” reduced nature to a mere starting point in a picture. In 1905, Paul Cézanne Cézanne, Paul began to show his paintings in Paris; his preoccupation with sculptured form was to mark another great development, which, in turn, would outweigh the new primitivism of Paul Gauguin and the new expressionism of Vincent van Gogh. In 1907, when Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was shown in Paris, another important modern movement, cubism, Cubism was introduced.

All of these movements can best be understood as making up what is still regarded as modernism in art. They all used nonrepresentational subjects or unrecognizable objects instead of what had previously been thought the only possible subject of art: the imitation and representation of recognizable objects from nature. Modernism in art actually eliminated the old concept of beauty and substituted aesthetics that were more complex, gave greater range to the imagination, and were completely different from any earlier art form.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the Parisians took this artistic revolution with equanimity. Conservative critics and the public in general were shocked and repelled. The public came to accept this new art as it became familiar, but new and revolutionary artistic styles continued to be introduced. It is little wonder, then, that the American public reacted with shock, surprise, and puzzlement when the new movements of European art, along with what was new in American art, had to be absorbed in one cataclysmic art exhibit.

The idea of the Armory Show came to a group of young American artists at New York’s Madison Gallery in 1911. Walt Kuhn, one of the leading organizers, and several other artists were depressed at the hopelessness of selling original art in the United States. The only way an American artist could show was through museums or artists’ associations that were controlled by conservative juries. At the time, the only gallery that consistently exhibited modern art was Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz had great faith in American artists, but he preferred to concentrate on a few artists. The promotion of many artists to a broad audience was, however, the chief objective of the Madison Gallery group, and they were resolved to do something about it. By January, 1912, the group had twenty-five members, called the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, Association of American Painters and Sculptors who, for the most part, could not be regarded as modernists. What they most sought was independence; freedom from established and conservative museums, patrons, and exhibits; and a chance to show their art without juries or prizes.

It was Arthur B. Davies who transformed the idea of an independent show into an aesthetic revolution and determined to combine the showing of American art with the best art that could be obtained from Europe. Davies’s efforts were aided by the work and support of writer and hostess Mabel Dodge, who had an instinct for recognizing talented artists and good art and promoted both. Dodge became an enthusiastic backer and vice president of the Armory Show.

The show opened to great publicity. On hand was the entire panoply of the new French art, including a fair representation of works by Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Odilon Redon, and the surprise hit and symbol of the show, Marcel Duchamp. The Fauves and the cubists were the most shocking, but they also drew the most comments; Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase occasioned some wit, including Theodore Roosevelt’s observation that the picture looked like his Navajo bathroom rug and another description that likened it to “an explosion in a shingle factory.”


Most American artists were shaken by the new forces in art that they saw for the first time in the Armory Show. Younger artists who were still relatively uncommitted to a particular movement were profoundly affected because they did not have to act defensively. Stuart Davies, Davies, Stuart who was to become a leader in American art in the 1920’s, called the show “the greatest single experience . . . in all my work.” After showing the new art in New York, the sponsors sent it on a national tour. When it arrived in Chicago, students burned effigies of Henri Matisse and Constantin Brancusi. In Boston, it was snubbed by conservative members of society. Nevertheless, by the end of the tour, the show had been seen by nearly three hundred thousand persons; in a country possessing only a handful of art galleries, such success was little short of spectacular.

The Armory Show also led to a revolution in American art, and so it is fitting that its emblem was the pine tree—a symbol used by Massachusetts during the American Revolution. Galleries in New York began to multiply, serious collectors began to amass many of the modernistic paintings that hung in American museums in the late twentieth century, a whole new generation of artists received encouragement and inspiration when they most needed it, and art became a familiar topic in the newspapers and periodicals for many who had never before thought of the possibility of looking at pictures.

The Armory Show was a great cultural innovation, but it was more than that. So profound was its effect that the Armory Show can be considered to be the dividing line in the development of American art—to be judged as being either before or after the show. The long-range effects of the Armory Show are primarily twofold: First, the Armory Show gave impetus to the establishment of new museums and the expansion of those that existed. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, can trace its origins to the Armory Show. Second, by making the public aware of modern art, the Armory Show became a powerful force in transforming modern art into big business. In time, works by established artists were viewed as investments that were as safe and profitable as blue-chip securities, if not more so. Art moved from the studio to the marketplace, even if sometimes this move was not necessarily to its advantage. Art;Armory Show (1913) Armory Show (1913)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The Armory Show. 3 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1972. Volume 3 is of particular value because it documents, through original sources such as cartoons and articles, the violent opposition to the Armory Show. Volume 3 also contains Walt Kuhn’s pamphlet on the show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baur, John I. Revolution and Tradition in Modern American Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951. An interpretation of the main movements and trends in American art that concentrates less on schools of painting and sculpture than on underlying traditions and currents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Milton W. The Story of the Armory Show. 2d ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988. Probably the best all-round account of the Armory Show. Includes diagrams showing how the works were presented and a complete listing of artworks shown and purchased. Brown covers the founding of the AAPS, the history of the organization of the exhibit, the critical reactions, and the influences that the show had. Also contains a catalog, the constitution of the AAPS, and a list of backers, lenders, and buyers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines art movements in the United States in the twentieth century, with emphasis on the relations among artists, museums, and art audiences. Includes illustrations, time line, list of museums, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Martin. New York, 1913: The Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. Discusses the Armory Show and the strike of the textile workers in Paterson, New Jersey, which occurred at the same time. The author attempts to relate these two events in spirit, as well as in time, but admits that it is difficult to find a point of view and set of terms that apply equally to both.
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    xlink:type="simple">Henry Street Settlement, New York. The Armory Show: Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, 1913-1963. New York: Author, 1963. Contains the complete catalog of the 1913 show, with full documentation of works. Also includes letters, essays, articles, photographs, and cartoons from 1913, statements by artists, and an analysis of the 1913 show written by Milton Brown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mancini, JoAnne Marie. Pre-Modernism: Art-World Change and American Culture from the Civil War to the Armory Show. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. A broad-ranging but still thorough account of visual modernism’s development through the early twentieth century. Treats the Armory Show as a seminal event in art history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Barbara. American Art Since 1900. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger, 1975. The author has revised her original 1967 work after consultation with authorities such as Meyer Shapiro and artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe. Chapters 6 and 7 are especially relevant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Constance H. The Shock of Modernism in America. Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1984. The catalog of an exhibition featuring works by “The Eight” and some of the artists represented in the Armory Show. Accompanying essays characterize American art in the early twentieth century and discuss the influence of several independent exhibitions and developments leading to the Armory Show. Also contains a brief history of the Armory Show and an epilogue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Mahonri Sharp. American Realists, Homer to Hopper. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1977. Discusses the works of many of the American artists represented in the Armory Show. Gives the reader an excellent understanding of the tradition of realism in American art. Well illustrated throughout.

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Categories: History