The exhibition devoted to the work of the American painter Everett Shinn (1876-1953) at the Berry-Hill Galleries comes as an interesting surprise-the surprise, at least for me, of discovering a little-known master of New York life of a century ago. Although well-known to an earlier generation as a member of the Eight, the group of American painters who banded together in 1908 to protest the academic policies of the National Academy of Design in New York, Shinn is now hardly a recognizable name to many younger people in the New York art world, and even to many people who are not so young. I cannot myself remember ever before seeing a one-man show of his work.
As for the Eight, its fortunes have similarly faded. Though the group included, besides Shinn, talents as fine as William Glackens and Maurice Prendergast, its moment of fame as rebels challenging tradition was eclipsed five years after its one and only group exhibition when the 1913 Armory Show introduced the New York public to the modern movement in Europe. From that point on, the Eight as a group passed into history, and it was left to the individual artists to make it on their own merits.
Shinn, the youngest artist in the group, outlived all the others, and it’s startling to think of him living on into the early years of the New York School. For he was himself a quintessential figure of fin-de-siècle New York in the period preceding World War I. As an artist, he came of age in the rough and tumble world of newspaper and magazine illustrators racing to meet deadlines. At the Philadelphia Press, where Shinn worked while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Stuart Davis’ father Edward was the art director, and Glackens also worked there as an illustrator.
Shinn, who had been raised by his Quaker parents in a small town in Pennsylvania, quit Philadelphia for New York at the age of 21-”lured away from the Philadelphia newspapers,” as Janay Wong writes in the excellent catalogue for the Berry-Hill exhibition, “by an offer to work as an illustrator at the New York World for a two-dollar increase.”
If this sounds like something out of a Theodore Dreiser novel of the period, so does Shinn’s later reminiscence of his state of mind as he approached New York for the first time on the Hoboken Ferry: “An awareness of some trap I had set for myself brought panic and despair …. Above me glittered a frozen storm of stars, an incandescent glow from the cities [sic] towers hung from the sky …. Could anyone live in peace under that blazing canopy? Could I concentrate in its muffled roar? Would my hand be steady for my work? I had come to try.”
Notwithstanding such understandable anxieties, Shinn proved to have a hearty appetite for the drama and excitements of New York life, especially for its street life and the life of the theater and music halls. And while supporting himself as an illustrator and magazine editor, he also pursued his ambitions as an artist who was determined to resist the moribund conventions of the genteel tradition which had to be observed in his work as a pictorial journalist.
He seems to have found a warrant for that direction in the work of Daumier and Degas. We know that Shinn traveled to Europe in 1900, but little seems to be known about what especially interested him on that journey. From some of the work he produced upon his return, however-the pastel called Girl in Bathtub (1903), the oil and pastel In the Loge (1903) and the oil painting Girl in Red on Stage (circa 1905)-we can be certain that he had looked at a good deal of Degas. Some of his lesser works of the period-the pastel Boudoir Scene (1907) and a similar pastel, Young Woman in Her Boudoir (1912)-suggest that he also looked at a good deal of Boucher, though that was not, perhaps, as happy an influence. Except for the 1903 Girl in Bathtub, Shinn seems not to have had much command in dealing with the female nude. Women in costume or otherwise wearing clothes-and men too, for that matter-were more in his line.
It was thus in his pictures of New York street life and theater life that he excelled. The hard bright light of New York in daylight held little romance for him. His talents tended to prosper after dark or in bad weather, where light remained fugitive and nocturnal shadows shaped the scene. This penchant for a dark and cloudy atmosphere announces itself early on in the wonderful charcoal drawing At the Hippodrome (circa 1900), and the dazzling, slightly earlier snow scene of Broadway, Late in the Afternoon, After the Matinee (1899); and this taste for shadowy interiors-illuminated by brilliant flashes of color-inspired the best of Shinn’s theater and music-hall pictures.
The influence of Daumier can be seen in quite different pictures-those of slums and urban crowds that, in Shinn’s work, have the character of street theater. It was the drama and dynamism of urban street life, however, rather than a political identification with its social problems, that drew Shinn to such subjects. Unlike Daumier-or even John Sloan, another member of the Eight who produced pictures of the underclass-Shinn didn’t go in much for social conscience. For him, painting and drawing the underprivileged members of urban society was a strictly aesthetic enterprise.
It is for all of these reasons that the artist Shinn most resembles among his contemporaries is the English painter Walter Sickert (1860-1942), who was similarly influenced by Degas in his paintings of the theater and other murky interiors.
To that nocturnal world, Shinn brought a very delicate visual poetry that deserves to be better known than it is today. Not everything that he produced was a masterpiece, to be sure, yet the current exhibition of more than 60 works will nonetheless be a revelation to the many people who are unacquainted with his accomplishments. So will Janay Wong’s fine catalogue ($40). The show remains on view at the Berry-Hill Galleries, 11 East 70th Street, through Jan. 13. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.