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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
A boost by Stanford White assured Shinnfs work a place in New York’s plushest galleries.
But Shinn soon did make the grade, to the extent of being hired away from the Press by the Philadelphia Inquirer. There he met the staff artist John Sloan, five years his senior, who was sharing a studio with Robert Henri, and before long he and Luks were, at Sloan’s invitation, repairing on Tuesday evenings to 806 Walnut Street for earnest discussions, centered on music or literature as often as on art, with other young men, artists and art students. Henri, at twenty-nine the group’s mentor, revered the great realist painter Thomas Eakins, who had taught at the academy until he was dismissed for insisting on using nude male models in his life classes and who sought, as he said, to “peer deeper into the heart of American life.” Henri used the weekly discussions to expound his own similar vision of art as a medium for expressing life and especially humanity. All this was too much for Luks, who soon stopped coming, and pretty much over the head of the eighteen-year-old Shinn, preoccupied with dating girls and adding to his flashy wardrobe; but the youth did enjoy the company of his fellow artist-reporters, one of whom, quiet William J. Glackens of the Philadelphia Ledger, twenty-four, was to become his closest friend among The Eight.
Over the next year Shinn and Luks bounced around among the Press, Inquirer, and Evening Bulletin, while Sloan, lacking the speed of execution needed to cover spot news, stayed with the Inquirer, working mostly on its Sunday supplement. Henri taught at Philadelphia’s School of Design for Women until May 1895, when he and Glackens went to Europe to sketch, paint, and look around. In January 1896 the Evening Bulletin sent Shinn’s former roommate, Luks, to Cuba to cover an insurrection but then fired him for not filing his work on time; after sailing to New York City, Luks got a job on Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, turning out America’s first regular comic panel, The Yellow Kid, in place of its creator, Richard F. Outcault, who by then was producing his own Yellow Kid for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Hearst’s raids on the World’s art staff created vacancies, and when Glackens came home from Europe jobless, Luks found him work drawing cartoons; then he talked his boss into luring Shinn to the World with a three-dollar-a-week raise. Thus, by the winter of 1897–98, three-quarters of the quartet known to art history as the Philadelphia Four had moved permanently to New York; the fourth, Sloan, was not to join them until 1904.
Meanwhile, Shinn’s good friend Glackens, tiring of cartooning, had resumed his old occupation at the New York Herald, and when, in April 1898, the United States went to war with Spain—in part as a consequence of strident warmongering by the Journal and the World—McClure’s sent him to Cuba to cover the fighting there, a job that he ably did until the August armistice.
And Shinn? Having, late in 1897, turned twenty-one and begun to earn the same number of dollars weekly, he set out to woo Florence Scovel, a Pennsylvania Academy student and budding illustrator. Pretty, witty, and talented, Flossie Scovel was related to Philadelphia’s Biddle family, and Shinn had to submit to being scrutinized by representatives of that exalted clan. His occupation can hardly have commended him to them, and his natty appearance—like a jockey dressed to go out on the town, someone said—was not calculated to win their confidence either; but whatever they thought of him, he and Flossie were married on June 26, 1898.
By then Henri, too, was married; he was living and painting in Paris, but such was his influence, even in absentia, that both Sloan and Glackens were busily working away in oils in their spare time. Glackens, now sharing an apartment with Luks, persuaded the latter to take up brushes, too, while Shinn began on his own to experiment with pastel chalks. If Henri had turned the first two draftsmen into painters (“He could make anyone want to be an artist,” Sloan was to say), New York itself helped do the same to the others.