- 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
Although the domestic Shinn—self-absorbed, demanding, finicky, and now, with the waning of his sexual powers, frantically jealous of his young wife—must have been exceedingly trying to live with, he firmly believed that his mates were to blame for his divorces. Flossie (of whom he remained very fond until her death in 1940 and with whom he often regretted having parted) had been too cold, Corinne too sloppy, and Gertrude too social. Now Paula, finally, continued the pattern: she fell in love with a man her own age, a Roxbury neighbor, so the Shinns’ subsequent breakup was patently her fault. As usual, Shinn’s conscience was clear.
When Paula Shinn divorced him in 1942, Shinn was two-thirds of a century old, and while he may thereafter have contemplated taking yet another stroll along the matrimonial slack wire, he never did. Instead, thanks to his durable good looks and charm, he found a succession of complaisant women with whom he concluded a succession of agreeable liaisons. Meanwhile, the Whitney Museum show of New York realists had spawned similar exhibitions elsewhere, sparking fresh interest in the long-neglected Eight. Shinn soon discovered, to his delight, that people would pay good money for pictures of circus performers in his pre-1912 style—and even better money if he dated them back to that era. John Sloan recorded this development in his notes in scathing terms: “Shinn is now doing a very sad and cheap thing. After being satisfied to do commercial work for years he is now trying to echo the old self that painted city life, around the turn of the century—very thin echoes. He tells me there is a dealer in California who will take all the clowns he can make. What a paradox that we two should be the last of The Eight, Shinn who was in the group by accident, clinging on Glackens’s shirttails—now catching up with the demand for pictures by The Eight who were rejected in their day.”
The vogue of The Eight, those most American of painters, may have been reinvigorated by the current of patriotic feeling that surged through the population—including Manhattan’s little coterie of dealers, collectors, and critics—with America’s entry into World War II; in any event, it was in 1944 that the management of the Plaza Hotel commissioned Shinn to paint the superb murals in that establishment’s Oak Bar showing the hotel and its environs as they had appeared forty years earlier.
In terms of public recognition Shinn’s final decade was a reprise of his triumphal first one as a painter, from 1901 to 1912: between 1943 and 1952 he was accorded no fewer than ten one-man shows, and his work was exhibited in the leading museums of the Northeast. In 1949 he was accepted at last into the ranks of the National Academy of Design that he had defied in his youth, and in 1951 he was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
But these honors—and the distinction, after Sloan’s death in 1951, of being the last of the fabled Eight—did not alter the facts that Shinn, now living at 26 Washington Square North, was in poor health and desperately short of cash. When James Graham & Sons, art dealers, began to represent him in 1952, the gallery’s director, Robert Graham, set aside some funds and raised more from other gallery owners; with this money the old man gratefully went south that winter to Sarasota, Florida, to visit his close friend of twenty years, Charles T. Henry, a leading figure in the field of industrial lighting. In Sarasota he visited the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus and from memory and sketches did a large pastel of acrobats performing on ropes dangling from the ceiling of a lofty colonnaded hall in a Spanish-style residence high above a rapt audience of guests in evening dress; it is a beautiful and dramatic picture, which, in its freshness, spontaneity, and reportorial directness, invites comparison with his work of a half a century before.
Returning to New York early in 1953, Shinn, a lifelong smoker, was found to be suffering from lung cancer and, after cobalt treatments, was admitted to New York Hospital. There, one day, he dashed off a sketch of the view from his window—a stretch of the East River, with a passing tug and barge—as forceful as anything he had ever done. And there, on May 1, he died, aged seventy-six. At his funeral three days later his dealer, Robert Graham, was, of course, present to say goodbye. And so, as Shinn would have been touched but might not have been surprised to see, were all three of his surviving ex-wives.