In 1913 SAIC students greeted modernism and Matisse with disdain and a mock trial.
In 1913 the international Armory Show traveled from New York to Chicago to be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show, officially known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, was America’s introduction to the European avant-garde, featuring works by Picasso, Gauguin, van Gogh, Brancusi, Duchamp, and more than 300 other artists. Included in this batch were works by Henri Matisse.
Today, the Armory Show is considered one of the most important moments in modern art—a catalyst for American artists. At that particular moment, however, many in the SAIC community felt vastly different.
The derision began in March 1913 as the show was unveiled at the museum. Charles Francis Browne, a painter and SAIC teacher, initiated the tirades against the modernists, specifically Matisse. During a speech to a student audience, Browne pontificated on how Matisse’s child had carelessly splattered paint on one of his father’s unfinished pieces. Browne declared, “Was the child punished? No. Matisse surveyed the work and exclaimed, ‘That’s it!’ and a new school of art was founded.”
Subsequently, SAIC students followed suit, and on April 16, 1913, just as the exhibition was leaving Chicago for Boston, students burned copies of three works by Matisse, including his Blue Nude. That same day, they held a mock trial of Matisse (who was played by a fellow student).
A guard armed with a rusty bayonet led out a shackled “Henry Hair Mattress,” as they called him, in front of a crowd of displeased students. The charges were read: "You are charged with artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title."
The jury found the faux-defendant guilty, sentencing him to death by hanging (though, some believe an effigy of the artist was to be burned). Before they could hang him, Henry Hair Mattress, shaken by his own guilt after committing artistic sin, fell dead.
The following day the headlines at the Chicago Tribune read: “Cubists Depart; Students Joyful.”
One of the Armory Show’s organizers noted, “Ten or twenty years from now, some of these students will be eating crow.”