- 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
Two years later Goldwyn Pictures, still located in New York, signed up Shinn, at forty too old to serve in World War I, as art director. His employers put him to work designing sets for a feature entitled Polly of the Circus.
The movie did well at the box office, and in 1920 Inspiration Pictures offered Shinn a contract as art director on a film based on a Joseph Hergesheimer novel entitled The Bright Shawl, about a Cuban rebellion in 1870, with a cast that included Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, and Mary Astor. Shinn accepted. The Bright Shawl was a big success, and it caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, who so admired the film’s authentic-looking tropical backgrounds that in 1923 he hired Shinn for his Cosmopolitan Pictures, at a gratifyingly large salary, to create sets and costumes for a Revolutionary War saga called Janice Meredith. Hearst told Shinn he was spending a million dollars on the project. When the film was well into production, its art director finally realized that this unheard-of sum was being lavished almost entirely on making it a showcase for its star, the producer’s mistress, Marion Davies, with little regard for historical accuracy or artistic integrity, and in a fine—and rare—gesture of moral indignation, he resigned, never again to work in motion pictures.
In the meantime Shinn and his second wife had been divorced. Their central problem arose, it seems, from the fact that while Everett was fastidious to a fault, Corinne was just the opposite. An excellent mother, she was a decidedly indifferent housekeeper, and this drove Shinn, who greatly valued comfort and order, to distraction. In March 1924 he married an actress named Gertrude Chase, and the pair settled into a big frame house in Westport, Connecticut. That year and throughout the boom years ahead, Shinn was chiefly occupied decorating private houses, in New York City and, especially, its affluent suburbs and exurbs, in the rococo-revival style at which he was so adept. Until the Great Depression cut them off, these commissions earned him a more than decent living.
Shinn firmly believed that his four wives were to blame for all his divorces.
One consequence of Shinn’s third marriage that pleased him greatly was the resumption of his friendship with the Glackenses, for Edith, who had taken a dislike to Corinne, warmed to Gertrude. From Shinn’s point of view, however, his third wife had a serious shortcoming in her fondness for parties, which in those Prohibition days almost invariably involved the consumption of bootleg liquor; he not only, as an abstainer, disapproved of alcohol in principle but also felt strongly that many people, including many of their neighbors, were a waste of his time. The couple’s disagreements on this score gave rise to bitter quarrels and then to separations, during which both, it seems, were unfaithful. Finally, in March 1932, Gertrude Shinn was granted a divorce on grounds of cruelty, Shinn having allegedly caused her extreme mental anguish by photographing her—on dozens of occasions—in the nude.
Even after taking three tumbles, the aging but still agile aerialist was game to risk what he would call in an unpublished memoir “the precarious hazards of the slack wire of matrimony.” In April 1933, just a month after the incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt had told the American people they had nothing to fear but fear itself, Shinn intrepidly married, at fifty-seven, a vivacious twenty-one-year-old named Paula Downing. According to the Bridgeport Herald, her mother was prostrated by the news, but like the artist’s earlier marriages, this one turned out to be, for a time, happy enough; in awe of her famous mate, Paula pandered to his need to be the center of attention and took his obsessive jealousy as a compliment. They lived sometimes in bucolic Roxbury, Connecticut, and sometimes in an apartment on New York’s art-gallery row, Fifty-seventh Street; touring these galleries with his wife, Shinn taught her to understand art. Together, too, they visited the Glackenses and, less often, other survivors from among The Eight. (Prendergast, Davies, and Henri had died in the 1920s, and Luks in 1933; Glackens was to die in 1938, and Lawson a year later.)
During those Depression years no more commissions came in for murals and decorations, and there were long, anxious waits between picture sales and assignments to do illustrations; like practically every other American artist, Shinn was often dead broke. But in February 1937, the Whitney Museum showed ten of his paintings, including London Hippodrome and Theatre Box, in an exhibition of New York realists, along with works by all other members of The Eight. And in 1939 he received the coveted Watson F. Blair Prize for watercolors at the Art Institute of Chicago; later he sold the museum his groundbreaking Early Morning, Paris for six hundred dollars.