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He was the most naturally gifted of The Eight, and his vigorous, uninhibited vision of city life transformed American painting at the turn of the century. In fact, he may have been too gifted.
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
Never at an art exhibition in this city has there been such an attendance,” the young painter Guy Pène du Bois reported in the New York American for February 4, 1908, adding that “only with the greatest difficulty, by stretching of necks, crowding and other strenuous methods, were spectators enabled to see the paintings.” All that week and the next, despite a snowstorm followed by days of slush, the curious continued to crowd into the Macbeth Galleries’ two 16 x 20 foot rooms on an upstairs floor of 450 Fifth Avenue. There they found eight one-man shows of unconventional pictures. This arrangement didn’t please everybody. One critic was “appalled by the clashing dissonances, by the jangling and booming of eight differently tuned orchestras,” while others testified that “vulgarity smites one in the face at this exhibition” and that “the whole thing creates a distinct feeling of nausea.” Yet several writers for newspapers and magazines praised the show; one critic, notably, hailed the exhibition of “so excellent a group,” whose paintings “escaped the blight of imitation.”
When the exhibition closed on February 19, seven pictures by five artists had been sold, for a total of almost four thousand dollars; jubilant, the gallery owner, William Macbeth, pronounced the event a “remarkable success.” As time would show, however, it was a good deal more than that, for it demolished the pretensions of the conservative National Academy of Design to being the sole arbiter of taste in art, established the vigorous existence of a distinctively American way of painting, and greatly enlarged the range of possibilities open to graphic artists.
Who were The Eight, as the newspapers dubbed them, these “men of rebellion” who had brought about this upheaval? They were not, as might be supposed, young firebrands; all were, in fact, in their thirties and forties. First among equals as inspirer, catalyst, and organizer was Robert Henri, a great teacher and virtuoso realist; allied to him in style and feeling were two disciples, John Sloan and George Luks. Three others, William J. Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast, were impressionists. The lone romanticist was Arthur B. Davies, a painter of chaste nudes in idyllic landscapes. Finally, at thirty-one, the youngest was an illustrator who worked in a variety of styles, Everett Shinn.
Because they rejected decorous subject matter, The Eight were branded the Ashcan school.
Years later The Eight would be branded the Ashcan school because they rejected the decorous subject matter then deemed suitable for paintings in favor of ordinary, everyday aspects of life, especially city life. But they remained leery of group labels; hadn’t they told the press: “We’ve come together because we’re so unlike”?
If each of The Eight was very much an individual, Everett Shinn seemed to be several, and indeed, The New York Times would sum him up in an obituary as an “artist, sign painter, draftsman, engineer, designer, writer, composer, actor, teacher, carpenter, mechanic and theatre impresario.” (Even this list was not complete, however, Shinn having also made his mark as a decorator, puzzle maker, and motion-picture art director.) But simply as an artist he differed in important ways from his fellows: he preferred pastel chalks to oil paints, and although he was the first Ashcan-school painter actually to depict an ash can (in a 1901 pastel, Early Morning, Paris), he soon thereafter lost interest in lower-class life and sought inspiration instead in fashionable parts of town and in the glittering, artificial world of the theater. Theatricality, in fact, pervaded all his work, so that in representing, for example, a city street, he would show it at night, lighted by streetlamps, or in a rainstorm, or both, with bundled-up passersby scurrying along the sidewalks. These dramatic urban nocturnes and his vivid, sympathetic portraits of entertainers performing were highly popular, but they appealed to sophisticated art lovers, too, by virtue of their painterly qualities. So it was hardly surprising that those New York galleries that ordinarily disdained to show the work of any American painters, let alone ones as far removed from the mainstream as were most of The Eight, happily displayed his. Decades afterward, Shinn was to denigrate these turn-of-the-century showrooms as “plush grottoes where the cadavers were displayed in sumptuous coffins,” yet his willingness to use them at the time was not hypocritical. Ever avid for dollars, he believed all his life in the marketplace and deferred to its judgments. It was in this respect, surely, that he was most unlike his fellow members of The Eight, idealists all who declined to paint for any market.
During his long and singularly varied career, Shinn was to have recourse to several painting styles, but in his early work, on which his reputation chiefly rests, he hewed with some consistency to a kind of cisatlantic impressionism based on a dark, limited palette.