- Everett Shinn - The American Degas [Biography]
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Everett Shinn

"I was often accused of being a snob. Not at all. It's just the uptown life with all its glitter was more good looking; the people made pictures. And the clothes then -- the movement, the satins, women's skirts and men's coats, and the sweep of furs and swish of wild boas, oh Lord!"

Those who chronicle American art have a predilection toward comparing individual artists from this country to supposed role models from Europe. George Luks, for example, is often called the American Frans Hals. Maurice Prendergast was dubbed an American CÚzanne. William Glackens is often compared to Renoir. What these men all have in common beyond that, is that they were all members of a small, New York painting fraternity running rampant around the turn of the century called the Group of Eight. The youngest member of this group was Everett Shinn. He's been called the American Degas for his overwhelming interest in portraying the New York theatre from both sides of the proscenium arch. Not only did he enjoy painting the theatre crowd, but also the theatres themselves, as a decorator and set designer. In his studio he even build his own little 55-seat theatre where he wrote plays, designed costumes, painted the backdrops, produced, and acted in his own productions. Most were rather trite little extravaganzas, hardly more than glorified skits, but one, with the ubiquitous title, More Sinned Against than Usual, played in seven different languages all over the world for more than a quarter century.

Shinn was born in 1876 into a Quaker family, the youngest of eight children. An artist from the time he was a child, at the age of fourteen he went to work designing gas lighting fixtures for a company in his hometown of Woodstown, New Jersey. He designed and built his own working steam engine at the age of fifteen. At sixteen, he went to Philadelphia where he enrolled in mechanical drawing classes. Precocious as an American Picasso, by the time he was seventeen he was working full time as a "visual reporter" (illustrator) for the Philadelphia Press. There he fell in with Henri, Sloan, and the rest of the Group of Eight. At the age of twenty-one, he was the first of "The Eight" to move on up to the big time and New York City. As the others followed, they became the Ashcan School, though of the eight, he was perhaps the least "Ashcanny." Though he sometimes painted the obligatory city streets, docks, and derelicts, it was not the city's dour low life that most interested him, but its glittering high life.

Besides painting, Shinn had many other interests. Some would say too many. He taught at the Art Student's League, worked designing for the Broadway theatre (the Ziegfield Follies), travelled and studied extensively in Paris, tried his hand at interior design, also as art director for many early silent films, loved Vaudeville, and apparently women. He was divorced four times. As a result, his painting suffered. Critics consider him the least talented of the Ashcan School and usually the comparisons made to Degas note only the similarity of subject matter while deprecating his painting skills as compared to that of his French counterpart. However, like Degas, he loved working in pastels and here their work is often compared quite favourably. In later years, he took up painting murals, working well into his seventies, his style taking on a lively, sketchy quality, his subjects tending toward clowns and female nudes in their boudoirs. He died in 1953 at the age of 76, the last of the immortal Group of Eight.

contributed by Lane, Jim

7 January 2000

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