- 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
All his life Shinn loved the stage and the circus.
By then the erstwhile Philadelphia newspaper artists had formed the habit of dining with their wives and New York friends at a Sixth Avenue restaurant called Mouquin’s, the setting of what may be Glackens’s best-known picture, Chez Mouquin (1905), but since Shinn was a teetotaler, he didn’t really enjoy these convivial evenings and attended only occasionally. Glackens was his main link with the others, and it was through him that he soon met Ernest Lawson, a mild, smiling painter of landscapes, who, with his wife, occupied a studio around the corner from them both, in MacDougal Alley. Shinn already knew two other unconventional painters whose work Henri admired and with whom he himself would soon be associated: the shy bachelor Maurice Prendergast of Boston, whose joyously polychrome, tapestrylike watercolors of women and children at the seaside and in city parks could lift the heaviest hearts, and Arthur B. Davies, who lived upstairs from the Macbeth Galleries and had arranged Henri’s first one man show there in 1902.
In the summer of 1906, as in summers past and to come, the Shinns and the Glackenses rented cottages on Great South Bay in Bellport, Long Island. That fall and winter Shinn was so busy decorating fashionable houses in Connecticut and working up murals for Belasco’s theater that he gave little thought to the fate of the pictures he had routinely submitted to the National Academy of Design for possible exhibition. Not so Henri, now both an academician and a member of the selection jury; to his dismay, his fellow jurors, in considering paintings for the winter exhibition, turned down all of those by Shinn, Luks, and Glackens. And for the spring show they rejected, over his vociferous protests, every single picture submitted by Shinn, Luks, Glackens, Lawson, and Davies.
This was too much for Henri. Irate, he withdrew two of the three paintings of his own that had been approved for exhibition and soon began, with Sloan, Glackens, and others, to look into the possibility of mounting an independent show.
Before long Davies informed Sloan that the Macbeth Galleries could be theirs for two weeks the following winter, and since William Macbeth had long supported the more individual American painters, everyone found this solution appropriate. Asked by letter whether he wanted to take part, Prendergast replied from Boston that he was “for it strong.” And in mid-May, with the roster of participants complete, the story was given to the newspapers, which promptly took sides for and against the eight “apostles of ugliness” nine months in advance of their scheduled act of rebellion.
Of the eight pastels and oils that Shinn contributed to the epochal show of February 1908, six, including London Hippodrome, were explicitly theatrical—glimpses of ballet dancers, an acrobat, musicians in an orchestra—but the one that was sold, Girl in Blue, was not. The purchaser was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the socialite-sculptor and future founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who also bought three other pictures out of the show; a month later she was to acquire from Shinn four red-chalk drawings and a monotype. So even as it enabled him to combat the tyranny of academic taste, the exhibition brought him a tidy profit.
In April 1910 Shinn, along with every other member of The Eight except Luks, whose long-overdue first one man show conflicted with it, took part in a huge, successful six-hundred-work Exhibition of the Independent Artists, open to all comers.
The following year Shinn was commissioned to execute for the Trenton, New Jersey, city hall, two very large murals representing the city’s main industrial sites: a steel mill and a pottery works. He put in six months familiarizing himself with the workmen and their operations at the two plants before going to work on the huge panels. The rococo-revival style he ordinarily employed for murals would obviously have been inappropriate for the subjects in question, and his muscular, half-naked male figures toiling in the blazing light and heat of the steel furnace and kilns are relentlessly realistic.