- Historic Sites
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
Protean, mercurial, and greatly gifted—the most conspicuously gifted of The Eight—Shinn was also energetic, industrious, and determined. Though extraordinarily facile, he was never altogether satisfied with what he had done and was forever finding ways to improve on it. Yet he did not become the foremost American painter of his time or even of his group. Just why he didn’t cannot be explained in a few words, but on reviewing his life, it is hard not to conclude that a person can be too talented, too versatile, too inventive for his own good.
Everett Shinn was born on November 7, 1876, in Woods town, New Jersey, second of three sons of the pretty wife of a Quaker bank employee whose family had been established in the town for generations. The senior Shinns were indulgent parents, and their Ev learned early that he could get his way simply by lying down on the floor and screaming. While growing up, he delighted in feats of daring, in winter skating on ice just thick enough to support his weight and in summer riding his bicycle along the gutter that skirted the roof of his house. Once he strung a wire between two trees and practiced tightrope walking, and when a traveling circus came to town, he watched the acrobats especially closely.
He started to draw in the lower grades of his day school, a Quaker academy. By the time he was graduated, he had become fascinated with mechanics, and he enrolled at the Spring Garden Institute in nearby Philadelphia to study mechanical drawing. During afternoons in the machine shop there, he devised a rotary engine with only seven parts. “It wasted too much steam to be efficient,” he later recalled, “but it worked.”
After two years at the institute young Shinn took a job in the drafting room of the Thackeray Gas Fixture Works. Soon, however, the repetitiveness of his duties got to him; bored with having to reproduce every detail of a chandelier, he turned to the margin of his drawing and there sketched, from memory, Philadelphia’s Broad Street, with hansom cabs and hurrying pedestrians. He was found out, bawled out, and kicked out, but his supervisor showed understanding. “Go to an art school, young man,” he advised him on parting. “You have the gift to draw—do it because you can and I can’t.”
The next fall Shinn enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Then, fearful that his father might cut off his allowance on learning he had not gone to Swarthmore College as planned, he found his way to the office of the Philadelphia Press and landed a job as an artist-reporter. Reporting fires, strikes, train wrecks, highway accidents, elections, murders, suicides, and other events in pen-and-ink sketches—here was work for a very junior draftsman that was anything but boring! Shinn, not yet seventeen, quickly taught himself to fix in mind the details of a newsworthy spectacle while jotting down pertinent information on handy scraps of paper. He then dashed back to the office to reproduce the scene faithfully, in swift pen strokes, for the waiting photoengraver.
Because he attended the Pennsylvania Academy by day, Shinn worked on the newspaper’s graveyard shift. At first he lived alone in a furnished room. Early in 1894, however, twenty-six-year-old George B. Luks, back in America after a decade of study and travel in Europe, joined the Press’s art staff, and the two moved into a small apartment on Girard Avenue. At just under five and a half feet, Luks was about Shinn’s height but a lot stockier. Luks was a regular at O’Malley’s across the street from the Press building, where, in Shinn’s words, “his rumbling advance along a bar rail was like a tank rolling on with a child at the wheel and all guns popping cork.” For his part, the hard-drinking Luks deplored his roommate’s abstinence. “Shinn,” he would tell him, “you’ve got a hell of a lot of promise, but you’ll never make the grade. And why won’t you? You don’t drink. That’s sad. Licker does it, licker and nothing else…”