painter & printmaker
(1876 – 1953)
Born: Woodstown, New Jersey
“He was the youngest member of the group of modernist painters who explored the depiction of real life. He is most famous for his numerous paintings of New York and the theater and of various aspects of luxury and modern life inspired by his home in New York City.”
– Everett Shinn
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Everett Shinn was a most fascinating product of his time. Handsome and witty, a very successful “visual reporter” (as opposed to illustrator) turned artist, a playwright, an actor, and a society figure, he began his studies at The Spring Garden Institute in Philadelphia, with courses in industrial design and engineering. In 1890, at age fourteen, he became a designer for the Thackeray Gas Fixture Works where he stayed for three years before enrolling in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, studying with Thomas Anshutz. Robert Henri was also teaching at the Academy at the time, and George Luks, John Sloan, and William Glackens were also students there, but Shinn was not to meet them until they were all working in New York.
In 1897, he left the Academy and moved to New York, where he began working for the New York Worldas an illustrator of current events. Soon he met Luks, Sloan, and Glackens, all engaged in the same kind of work. It was during this period that Shinn achieved the breathless brushstroke and dramatic composition which became the hallmarks of his style during his long career. The heyday of newspaper artists-those who thought of themselves as reporters of the “look” of a story-was also the first daylight on the modern urban era. For Shinn and his literary and artistic colleagues, urban culture was the real subject of their work. The stories and accompanying pictures were fundamentally about what happens when hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of different countries were gathered in a small place and equipped with such recent inventions as electricity, streetcars, and multi-family dwellings. The audience for these stories and illustrations was also its subject.
During the first decade of the new century Shinn was showing his work at such illustrious fine art galleries as M. Knoedler, Durand-Ruel, Goupil, and Wildenstein. Shinn had spent the summer of 1900 in England and France, and it is more than likely that during his travels he saw Degas’s paintings of the 1870s which, like Dancer in White Before the Footlights, view the stage from the orchestra pit. In 1908, he was in the show of The Eight at the Macbeth Galleries. Shinn contributed scenes of the stage-ballet, orchestras, vaudeville. He had apparently been working in this vein simultaneously with his reporting. The theatrical pictures, of which Dancer in White Before the Footlights is the largest, are different from Shinn’s other work in several respects: they are oil on canvas rather than pastel, chalk, or watercolor on paper; the brushstrokes are blended, and the figures are modeled, rather than outlined or cross-hatched; the focus is on a few performers rather than a crowd, and there is a sense of intimacy with the protagonists which did not exist in the earlier, busier works. The performance/ vaudeville subjects gave Shinn the perfect motif in which to blend gritty realism and dramatic spectacle. Dancer in White Before the Footlights was done at the height of Shinn’s power as a fine artist. It remained in the artist’s personal collection until 1952, when it was very slightly retouched by him, and was then sold to the dealer Victor Spark, who sold it to the Butler Institute in 1957. In the second decade of the new century Shinn apparently lost interest in recording the anecdotes and tragedies of modern city life, and much of the rest of his career was spent on murals and theatrical and movie sets. In 1911, he finished a series of murals in the Council Chambers of Trenton City Hall. The next year Shinn built his own small theater and there produced many of his thirty-five plays for the entertainment of himself and friends. He also painted scores of theatrical backdrops, including some for Ziegfield’s Follies, as well as murals, the best extant of which are at the Plaza Hotel in New York. While he continued to produce oil paintings, many of them are sketchy, semi-humorous canvases of nudes in boudoirs, or clowns on and off stage.
As the century grew older, the charms of urban life began to fade, and Shinn turned his talent to more decorative, imaginary, and escapist subjects. His reputation has suffered as he has been reproached by later generations for abandoning the tough realism of the 1890s and early 1900s.
© JOSEPH KEIFFER