- 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
Never at an art exhibition in this city has there been such an attendance,” the young painter Guy Pène du Bois reported in the New York American for February 4, 1908, adding that “only with the greatest difficulty, by stretching of necks, crowding and other strenuous methods, were spectators enabled to see the paintings.” All that week and the next, despite a snowstorm followed by days of slush, the curious continued to crowd into the Macbeth Galleries’ two 16 x 20 foot rooms on an upstairs floor of 450 Fifth Avenue. There they found eight one-man shows of unconventional pictures. This arrangement didn’t please everybody. One critic was “appalled by the clashing dissonances, by the jangling and booming of eight differently tuned orchestras,” while others testified that “vulgarity smites one in the face at this exhibition” and that “the whole thing creates a distinct feeling of nausea.” Yet several writers for newspapers and magazines praised the show; one critic, notably, hailed the exhibition of “so excellent a group,” whose paintings “escaped the blight of imitation.”
When the exhibition closed on February 19, seven pictures by five artists had been sold, for a total of almost four thousand dollars; jubilant, the gallery owner, William Macbeth, pronounced the event a “remarkable success.” As time would show, however, it was a good deal more than that, for it demolished the pretensions of the conservative National Academy of Design to being the sole arbiter of taste in art, established the vigorous existence of a distinctively American way of painting, and greatly enlarged the range of possibilities open to graphic artists.
Who were The Eight, as the newspapers dubbed them, these “men of rebellion” who had brought about this upheaval? They were not, as might be supposed, young firebrands; all were, in fact, in their thirties and forties. First among equals as inspirer, catalyst, and organizer was Robert Henri, a great teacher and virtuoso realist; allied to him in style and feeling were two disciples, John Sloan and George Luks. Three others, William J. Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast, were impressionists. The lone romanticist was Arthur B. Davies, a painter of chaste nudes in idyllic landscapes. Finally, at thirty-one, the youngest was an illustrator who worked in a variety of styles, Everett Shinn.
Because they rejected decorous subject matter, The Eight were branded the Ashcan school.
Years later The Eight would be branded the Ashcan school because they rejected the decorous subject matter then deemed suitable for paintings in favor of ordinary, everyday aspects of life, especially city life. But they remained leery of group labels; hadn’t they told the press: “We’ve come together because we’re so unlike”?
If each of The Eight was very much an individual, Everett Shinn seemed to be several, and indeed, The New York Times would sum him up in an obituary as an “artist, sign painter, draftsman, engineer, designer, writer, composer, actor, teacher, carpenter, mechanic and theatre impresario.” (Even this list was not complete, however, Shinn having also made his mark as a decorator, puzzle maker, and motion-picture art director.) But simply as an artist he differed in important ways from his fellows: he preferred pastel chalks to oil paints, and although he was the first Ashcan-school painter actually to depict an ash can (in a 1901 pastel, Early Morning, Paris), he soon thereafter lost interest in lower-class life and sought inspiration instead in fashionable parts of town and in the glittering, artificial world of the theater. Theatricality, in fact, pervaded all his work, so that in representing, for example, a city street, he would show it at night, lighted by streetlamps, or in a rainstorm, or both, with bundled-up passersby scurrying along the sidewalks. These dramatic urban nocturnes and his vivid, sympathetic portraits of entertainers performing were highly popular, but they appealed to sophisticated art lovers, too, by virtue of their painterly qualities. So it was hardly surprising that those New York galleries that ordinarily disdained to show the work of any American painters, let alone ones as far removed from the mainstream as were most of The Eight, happily displayed his. Decades afterward, Shinn was to denigrate these turn-of-the-century showrooms as “plush grottoes where the cadavers were displayed in sumptuous coffins,” yet his willingness to use them at the time was not hypocritical. Ever avid for dollars, he believed all his life in the marketplace and deferred to its judgments. It was in this respect, surely, that he was most unlike his fellow members of The Eight, idealists all who declined to paint for any market.
During his long and singularly varied career, Shinn was to have recourse to several painting styles, but in his early work, on which his reputation chiefly rests, he hewed with some consistency to a kind of cisatlantic impressionism based on a dark, limited palette.
Protean, mercurial, and greatly gifted—the most conspicuously gifted of The Eight—Shinn was also energetic, industrious, and determined. Though extraordinarily facile, he was never altogether satisfied with what he had done and was forever finding ways to improve on it. Yet he did not become the foremost American painter of his time or even of his group. Just why he didn’t cannot be explained in a few words, but on reviewing his life, it is hard not to conclude that a person can be too talented, too versatile, too inventive for his own good.
Everett Shinn was born on November 7, 1876, in Woods town, New Jersey, second of three sons of the pretty wife of a Quaker bank employee whose family had been established in the town for generations. The senior Shinns were indulgent parents, and their Ev learned early that he could get his way simply by lying down on the floor and screaming. While growing up, he delighted in feats of daring, in winter skating on ice just thick enough to support his weight and in summer riding his bicycle along the gutter that skirted the roof of his house. Once he strung a wire between two trees and practiced tightrope walking, and when a traveling circus came to town, he watched the acrobats especially closely.
He started to draw in the lower grades of his day school, a Quaker academy. By the time he was graduated, he had become fascinated with mechanics, and he enrolled at the Spring Garden Institute in nearby Philadelphia to study mechanical drawing. During afternoons in the machine shop there, he devised a rotary engine with only seven parts. “It wasted too much steam to be efficient,” he later recalled, “but it worked.”
After two years at the institute young Shinn took a job in the drafting room of the Thackeray Gas Fixture Works. Soon, however, the repetitiveness of his duties got to him; bored with having to reproduce every detail of a chandelier, he turned to the margin of his drawing and there sketched, from memory, Philadelphia’s Broad Street, with hansom cabs and hurrying pedestrians. He was found out, bawled out, and kicked out, but his supervisor showed understanding. “Go to an art school, young man,” he advised him on parting. “You have the gift to draw—do it because you can and I can’t.”
The next fall Shinn enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Then, fearful that his father might cut off his allowance on learning he had not gone to Swarthmore College as planned, he found his way to the office of the Philadelphia Press and landed a job as an artist-reporter. Reporting fires, strikes, train wrecks, highway accidents, elections, murders, suicides, and other events in pen-and-ink sketches—here was work for a very junior draftsman that was anything but boring! Shinn, not yet seventeen, quickly taught himself to fix in mind the details of a newsworthy spectacle while jotting down pertinent information on handy scraps of paper. He then dashed back to the office to reproduce the scene faithfully, in swift pen strokes, for the waiting photoengraver.
Because he attended the Pennsylvania Academy by day, Shinn worked on the newspaper’s graveyard shift. At first he lived alone in a furnished room. Early in 1894, however, twenty-six-year-old George B. Luks, back in America after a decade of study and travel in Europe, joined the Press’s art staff, and the two moved into a small apartment on Girard Avenue. At just under five and a half feet, Luks was about Shinn’s height but a lot stockier. Luks was a regular at O’Malley’s across the street from the Press building, where, in Shinn’s words, “his rumbling advance along a bar rail was like a tank rolling on with a child at the wheel and all guns popping cork.” For his part, the hard-drinking Luks deplored his roommate’s abstinence. “Shinn,” he would tell him, “you’ve got a hell of a lot of promise, but you’ll never make the grade. And why won’t you? You don’t drink. That’s sad. Licker does it, licker and nothing else…”
A boost by Stanford White assured Shinnfs work a place in New York’s plushest galleries.
But Shinn soon did make the grade, to the extent of being hired away from the Press by the Philadelphia Inquirer. There he met the staff artist John Sloan, five years his senior, who was sharing a studio with Robert Henri, and before long he and Luks were, at Sloan’s invitation, repairing on Tuesday evenings to 806 Walnut Street for earnest discussions, centered on music or literature as often as on art, with other young men, artists and art students. Henri, at twenty-nine the group’s mentor, revered the great realist painter Thomas Eakins, who had taught at the academy until he was dismissed for insisting on using nude male models in his life classes and who sought, as he said, to “peer deeper into the heart of American life.” Henri used the weekly discussions to expound his own similar vision of art as a medium for expressing life and especially humanity. All this was too much for Luks, who soon stopped coming, and pretty much over the head of the eighteen-year-old Shinn, preoccupied with dating girls and adding to his flashy wardrobe; but the youth did enjoy the company of his fellow artist-reporters, one of whom, quiet William J. Glackens of the Philadelphia Ledger, twenty-four, was to become his closest friend among The Eight.
Over the next year Shinn and Luks bounced around among the Press, Inquirer, and Evening Bulletin, while Sloan, lacking the speed of execution needed to cover spot news, stayed with the Inquirer, working mostly on its Sunday supplement. Henri taught at Philadelphia’s School of Design for Women until May 1895, when he and Glackens went to Europe to sketch, paint, and look around. In January 1896 the Evening Bulletin sent Shinn’s former roommate, Luks, to Cuba to cover an insurrection but then fired him for not filing his work on time; after sailing to New York City, Luks got a job on Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, turning out America’s first regular comic panel, The Yellow Kid, in place of its creator, Richard F. Outcault, who by then was producing his own Yellow Kid for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Hearst’s raids on the World’s art staff created vacancies, and when Glackens came home from Europe jobless, Luks found him work drawing cartoons; then he talked his boss into luring Shinn to the World with a three-dollar-a-week raise. Thus, by the winter of 1897–98, three-quarters of the quartet known to art history as the Philadelphia Four had moved permanently to New York; the fourth, Sloan, was not to join them until 1904.
Meanwhile, Shinn’s good friend Glackens, tiring of cartooning, had resumed his old occupation at the New York Herald, and when, in April 1898, the United States went to war with Spain—in part as a consequence of strident warmongering by the Journal and the World—McClure’s sent him to Cuba to cover the fighting there, a job that he ably did until the August armistice.
And Shinn? Having, late in 1897, turned twenty-one and begun to earn the same number of dollars weekly, he set out to woo Florence Scovel, a Pennsylvania Academy student and budding illustrator. Pretty, witty, and talented, Flossie Scovel was related to Philadelphia’s Biddle family, and Shinn had to submit to being scrutinized by representatives of that exalted clan. His occupation can hardly have commended him to them, and his natty appearance—like a jockey dressed to go out on the town, someone said—was not calculated to win their confidence either; but whatever they thought of him, he and Flossie were married on June 26, 1898.
By then Henri, too, was married; he was living and painting in Paris, but such was his influence, even in absentia, that both Sloan and Glackens were busily working away in oils in their spare time. Glackens, now sharing an apartment with Luks, persuaded the latter to take up brushes, too, while Shinn began on his own to experiment with pastel chalks. If Henri had turned the first two draftsmen into painters (“He could make anyone want to be an artist,” Sloan was to say), New York itself helped do the same to the others.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.