- 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
Aware that advances in photographic reproduction would soon eliminate his job, Shinn resolved to get into the better paid and more prestigious field of magazine illustration. One showcase that illustrators particularly prized was the center spread of Harper’s Weekly, the preserve of Charles Dana Gibson and Edwin Austin Abbey, and late in 1898 Shinn made up his mind to crash it. He began turning up at the magazine’s office on Fridays but by his account never even got so far as untying the strings of his ever-thicker portfolio. After a year of this he despaired of selling his wares and instead simply left them at Harper’s with an explanatory note. On returning the following week, he was shown into the presence of Col. George Harvey, the editor and publisher, who was leafing through his sketches and finished pastels.
“You have here,” Harvey began, “such a variety of New York street scenes.” Had Shinn, by chance, a large color drawing of the Metropolitan Opera House in a snowstorm?
Shinn pretended to consider the matter. “I think I have,” he said.
“Good,” said Harvey. “Have it here at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
The artist labored over the picture all night to give it the requisite look of having been effortlessly dashed off and arrived at Colonel Harvey’s office light-headed. The editor studied the pastel. “We have to decide on a price,” he said at last. “How about four hundred dollars and you own the original?”
When the issue of Harper’s Weekly containing his center spread came out in mid-February 1900, Shinn could feel he had arrived on the national scene. And later that month the Boussod, Valadon Galleries launched a one-man show of his pastels, to notices that were nearly all favorable.
During his year-long siege of Harper’s Weekly Shinn had done portraits of the actresses Julia Marlowe and Elsie de Wolfe and the prolific playwright Clyde Fitch. De Wolfe, then about to become a decorator, had introduced Shinn to Stanford White, who liked his pastels well enough to arrange for his first big exhibition at Boussod, Valadon. Thanks to this timely boost by the era’s most celebrated architect and the town’s preeminent tastemaker, Shinn’s work would be displayed during the opening years of the century in the very plushest of New York’s “plush grottoes”: again at Boussod, Valadon (J. P. Morgan bought two pictures), then at Kraushaar’s, Knoedler’s, Durand-Ruel, and E. Gimpel and WiIdenstein.
Shinn found himself before long turning out murals, screens, and ornamental panels for houses and apartments that de Wolfe decorated and for urban and rural mansions White designed and built. On jobs of this kind he sought inspiration in the art of the eighteenth-century French court painters Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard, producing nymphs and satyrs, cupids and lovers, shepherds and shepherdesses imbued with a delicacy and airy grace no other member of The Eight could have equaled. He employed this rococo-revival style as well to decorate the ceilings of a new house and two ornate pianos of Clyde Fitch’s. The grateful playwright, chronically short of cash, paid him with a pair of gold chairs and a mahogany table.
It was through Fitch that Shinn met the impresario David Belasco. Sometime after Stanford White’s fatal shooting by Harry K. Thaw in 1906, Belasco commissioned Shinn to paint eighteen large murals for a new Broadway theater, the Stuyvesant. Stagestruck though he was all his life, the artist remained unimpressed by this dominant figure on the theatrical scene, whom he considered a “colossal faker.” Nor did he fall for his flattery. “Belasco knew,” he explained long afterward, “that Stanford White had been my friend and that by my proximity to his unerring taste I must have gleaned something of selectivity. It assured him of guidance toward those objects that would advertise still further his reputation for impeccable taste.”
With money flowing in from his magazine work and private commissions, Shinn had bought a brick house at 112 Waverly Place, a few doors west of Washington Square, in the entrance hall of which Clyde Fitch’s table and chairs now occupied an honored place. From New York, on February 16, 1904, he and Flossie entrained to Hartford, Connecticut, for the wedding of Bill Glackens, at thirty-four the last bachelor holdout of the old Philadelphia gang, and Edith Dimock, an art student. When, after a honeymoon trip, the newlyweds returned to New York, they settled temporarily in a one-room studio in an uptown building where Henri, then abroad, had a studio. A few weeks later Sloan, having at last quit Philadelphia, moved into Henri’s place with his Dolly. And that summer, to Shinn’s delight, the Glackenses found a studio apartment almost next door to him, at 3 Washington Square. Flossie and Edith, neighbors now, took to each other at once and in no time were intimates.