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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
Around this time Shinn, on impulse, built in the court behind 112 Waverly Place a complete little theater, containing seats for fifty-five spectators. He wrote burlesque melodramas, among them Hazel Weston, or More Sinned Against Than Usual, in which Flossie Shinn played the title role of the village schoolmarm who, as the innocent victim of scandal, is driven out into a snowstorm by the farm couple (Shinn and Edith Glackens) with whom she lodged. Hazel is then pursued by the villainous Flugeon Smith (Glackens), who, failing to possess her by foul means, offers matrimony. At this point in the story Shinn’s muse abruptly abandoned him, and at a rehearsal he invited Flossie to come up with her own retort. Glaring defiance at her loathed suitor, she instantly cried: “You vampire in viper’s form! Rather a thousand times would I be dead—with a snowdrift in my hair! That, sir, would be my bridal wreath!” On opening night this speech elicited a tumult of cheering and clapping.
At thirty-five, when many artists just begin to hit their stride, Shinn had peaked.
The subsequent history of Shinn’s melodramas must have astonished him. Approached one day by a showman, their author gladly sold him the rights to them for a small sum, perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, whereupon they became staple offerings on the vaudeville circuit, bringing their new owner revenue year after year. Hazel Weston was translated into six languages, including those of Scandinavia, and continued to be performed for nearly a quarter of a century—often, it is said, in the rural parts of Europe, where credulous peasants took it quite seriously.
But things were not going so smoothly in the Shinns’ life as these pleasant theatrical diversions would suggest. As the artist’s biographer, Edith DeShazo, disclosed in her 1974 book Everett Shinn, 1876–1953: A Figure in His Time, Flossie Shinn dreaded becoming pregnant and for this reason often shrank from lovemaking, wherefore Shinn sought and found solace, discreetly, with other women. All the same he remained devoted to her, and the pair, outstandingly attractive, charming, and thoroughly compatible in many ways, presented to the world a picture of connubial felicity.
Then one day early in 1912 Shinn told his wife he wanted a divorce. When she had recovered from the blow sufficiently to act, she applied for the decree, citing misconduct on Shinn’s part with three women in the course of a month. And in August her petition was granted.
As Shinn must have foreseen would happen, the Glackenses took a dim view of his casting aside his wife, a great favorite of theirs, and their relations with him cooled. In retrospect, these ruptures—with his wife and with the fellow artist he esteemed above all others—could be seen as symptoms of a profound change in the man himself, for the year 1912 marks a clear break between the brilliant opening phase of his career and another longer but far less distinguished one. The curious fact is that by thirty-five—an age at which many an artist just begins to hit his stride—Shinn had peaked, and his best work was behind him. He continued to paint easel pictures, but he stopped courting kudos as a painter to concentrate on commercial success. Whereas he had exhibited work at an average of three shows a year since 1899, he was not to do so again until 1920 and after that not until 1937!
Asked late in 1912 to exhibit at the Armory Show being organized under the leadership of Arthur B. Davies, Shinn either declined or simply ignored the invitation. That enormously significant exhibition, which exposed stay-at-home Americans for the first time to works by the postimpressionist masters Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, to cubism and fauvism, and to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, opened in New York’s 69th Regiment Armory in February 1913, but it is unlikely that Shinn, hostile to all modern art of whatever provenance, even bothered to attend it.
In March 1913 Shinn married Corinne Baldwin, a young woman from upstate New York whom he had met in Bellport. His new wife was to bear him two children, Janet and David, in 1915 and 1916 respectively. The couple eventually settled near the village of Palenville, at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, where Shinn built a vast and imposing fieldstone house he christened Bailiwick.
In 1915 an intriguing commentary on Shinn appeared in print in a faintly ludicrous novel by Theodore Dreiser, The Genius, whose tirelessly womanizing artist hero, Eugene Witla, was popularly supposed to have been based on him, just as a number of Witla’s pictures were, from the author’s descriptions of them, unmistakably based on Sloan’s. Dreiser had met several of the Ashcan painters while editing magazines to which they contributed illustrations, but he knew none well. Nor, it was clear, did he have a clue about the economics of selling and buying modern American paintings. Both Sloan and Shinn made the point to reporters that Witla, who easily sells his pictures of slum life for eighteen thousand dollars apiece, could not possibly exist in the real world.