Painters in Winter: Chapter Six

 Everett Shinn

Everett Shinn

After leaving Henri’s place, Sloan, Glackens, Lawson and Luks decide to go for beer and deviled kidneys. Ev, will you join us? Everett Shinn considers for a moment, then says all right, sure—even though he won’t touch alcohol and wouldn’t eat kidneys to save his mother’s life. On the way across town to Shanley’s, however, he changes his mind and hails a cab. Which aggravates the bejesus out of Sloan, and he comes this close to making some crack, something like Oh, stony broke, are you? But why waste his breath? Rebuke Shinn? Impossible. Shinn would only laugh. Call Sloan an old maid. Say, Everybody needs some luxuries—and I need more than most! As he used to say back in Philly when he’d borrow and starve rather than go without a new pair of button shoes.

After swinging into the cab, he calls back to his friends, I can only do this when Flossie’s not here. She’s cheaper than Rockefeller. Or you, Sloan! Then he shuts the door, stretches his legs and lights up a French cigarette. To the driver: Stuyvesant Theatre, Jack, and put on the speed!

Good God, he loves being conveyed. So what if it’s an extravagance? Why not enjoy himself? He deserves it. He’s making money, he’s painting murals, he’s selling paintings—he’s probably sold more pictures than anyone else in the group. Except maybe old sourpuss Davies. Thinking: Davies! What a hoot-and-a-half he is. Peddling his dreamy unicorns and Gardens of Eden to proper ladies with white hair and double chins!

As the cab passes through Times Square, Shinn leans forward, enjoying the nighttime bustle, the noise, the huge glittering electric signs overhead. Drink Budweiser, Heinz 57 Varieties, George M. Cohan In—

Now there’s a pretty piece of fluff! Outside the Hotel Knickerbocker. He taps on the window, and she notices him, she even smiles. But the moment she does, she gives herself away, the brazen doxy! And Shinn ducks back. He’s broken the seventh commandment several times—all right, many times—but he won’t pay for his pleasure. A man of his caliber? With his looks? Why pay when you can have it for nothing? Or for practically nothing—for a good meal, for an oil sketch in a gilded frame. It’s so easy! Everything is! And always has been. For Everett Shinn, struggle is a variety of experience nearly as exotic as astral projection.

But wait, that’s not entirely fair. When he was trying to break into Harper’s Weekly, wasn’t that a struggle? Showing up there with a portfolio of new drawings every single Wednesday for fifty-three weeks. It took fifty-three godblessed weeks before Colonel Harvey recognized his genius and gave him a shot at the coveted centerfold; more than a year to join ranks with Charles Dana Gibson and Edwin Austin Abbey! That wasn’t a struggle? It was, in Shinn’s opinion, a mighty struggle. And what about his courtship with Flossie? With Florence Scovel, of the Main Line blue-blooded Philadelphia Scovels. Shinn had a deuce of a time convincing that bunch of his worthiness. Marry their daughter? They were suspicious of his quick laugh, his outlandish clothing, and heartily disapproved of his occupation. Newspaperman? Oh, dear. Now, there was a struggle worthy of a serialized novel in Scribner’s. It took Shinn two years, two whole years, to win over the Scovels, and even then they weren’t entirely convinced of his character. Or prospects.

All right, so he has known what it’s like to struggle. Put it this way, then: his self-confidence is so complete and rock-solid that the occasional…stumbling block has never caused him so much as a jot of anguish, a smidgen of apprehension. (Had he ever seriously doubted he’d marry Flossie? Or crack Harper’s? No. Never.)

For years he’s been listening to Butts Glackens moan and groan about how difficult it is to make a good picture; John Sloan—the same thing! It tears them up, it drives them crazy. And for the life of him, Shinn doesn’t know what they’re both talking about. What’s so difficult? So painful? Whether it’s a pastel drawing of the Metropolitan Opera or a memory painting of the London Hippodrome, a pencil sketch of a backyard tenement or a crayon portrait of a casino girl, he simply…does it; no anxiety, no fuss; naturally, easily.

Lucky him. To be so untroubled. So talented. So multi-talented. Because he’s not just an artist. He can act, he can sing, he can even write plays. Write plays, even! Which he intends to produce, direct, and star in—as soon as he builds his own little theatre in the carriage house adjacent to his home in Waverly Place. Artist, actor, writer—carpenter—mechanic—scene designer. What else? Inventor! He’s already invented windshield wipers for eyeglasses; very practical. And he’s currently working up a device that will extract lead from paper and put it back into the pencil! Once he gets that patent, brother, he’ll never have to worry again about money. And his newfangled trellis—another good idea! Another great idea. Another million-dollar idea! You fold it up at night and stick it inside a special box, where insecticides squirt your flowers automatically while you sleep. Ingenious!

Shinn is aware that his painter friends make fun of him behind his back, laughing at some of his schemes; they think he’s spreading himself too thin. But it doesn’t bother him. He figures they’re jealous. That’s all: jealous. And not only of his versatility, but of his youth, as well. He’s only 32, the others are…almost old. Are they content merely to paint? Henri? Glackens? Luks? Sourpuss Davies? Apparently so. Well, Shinn could never be happy doing the same damn thing day in and day out; he’s far too clever for that. He can paint as well as any of them. In fact, he could paint them all under a table. But can they invent? Write a play? Decorate furniture? That’s another thing. He decorates furniture, in the style of Louis XIV. Could his friends? He’d like to see John Sloan embellish a piano with pictures of Marie Antoinette!

Shinn is delighted with himself—he’s come so far, he’s made such steady progress. Had such fun. A success in New York! Imagine! From Salem County, New Jersey to Times Square. He’s the first Shinn in generations to leave Woodstown, to quit that sleepy Quaker village and make his mark in the real world. South Jersey: south nowhere. He hasn’t been back in—he can’t remember the last time he paid a visit. But why should he go back? Forward! Forward!


Shinn’s mother was a small, plain-featured, and slow-moving woman addicted to fruit pies, milk chocolates, patent medicines, and romantic novels. Often, she’d forget about dinner. Shinn would come home just before dark with a string of fish he’d caught in Delaware Bay, and there she’d be on the porch swing, a book open on her lap, a tray of candies within easy reach. Frivolous, indolent, but good-natured. And pliable: he could always convince her to buy him a new pair of ice skates or give him money for the autumn circus simply by throwing himself down on the parlor rug and kicking his feet—by having a temper. All right, Ev, all right! Just stop your howling!

His father—Isaiah Shinn—was another thing entirely. Was sober and serious—was utterly humorless. And strict. A goateed face partially clouded by cigar smoke. A teller at the local bank. Where he never missed a day. Or made an error. Or cracked a smile. Mortgages were serious. Savings accounts were serious. Money was serious. Life was serious. He told young Everett. Who just rolled his eyes, then carried his three-wheeled scooter through an attic window and pedaled it around the roof gutters. Who stretched a wire between two elms, then walked it. Who once let some friends tie cement weights to his legs and throw him into a creek. The escape artist!

In 1891, when he was 15, Shinn made his great escape; he convinced his parents to send him to Philadelphia to study mechanical drawing at the Spring Garden Institute. But he loathed school (he always had) and after two years, he quit and found a job designing light fixtures at Thackery’s Gas Works.Which was torture. Torture! Sitting at a table ten, eleven—sometimes twelve!—hours a day. Thank God he was fired for doodling tramps and submarines on the margins of his mechanical drawings.

Out on the street, he said to himself: Now what? He looked around. Nothing struck him. So he started walking. After a while he noticed an interesting building and stopped to admire it. He read the sign: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Why not? he thought. He’d lost his job for sketching, maybe he was meant to be an artist. He climbed the steps, entered the front door and went looking for the registrar….


The cab turns into West Forty-fourth Street and stops in front of David Belasco’s sumptuous new Stuyvesant Theatre. Shinn pays the cabman—fare plus a nickel—then steps rapidly across the pavement. Recognizing him, the doorman says, Good evening, sir. The woman in the ticket cage—she knows him, too, and smiles.Why, hello, Mr. Shinn.

Mr. Shinn. Sir.

Inside, the last act of a melodrama is reaching its climax. On stage, a bearded man in roughhewn miner’s clothing is threatening the pretty blonde ingénue—is that a mortgage he’s waving around, or a batch of indiscreet love letters?  On a wooden table, a whiskey bottle labeled XXX. Through the cabin window, snow-capped mountains in the distance. Where are we—Denver? Shinn leans against a polished brass rail and watches.

A few feet to his left is an usherette in a short red jacket and a long black skirt; she’s counting programs, making stacks of twenty, which she then bands and fits into a cardboard box. Rather a plain thing. With drab brown hair. And her bosom is not sufficiently…developed for Shinn’s taste. Nevertheless, on his way upstairs, he winks at her.

Going along the balcony hall, he stops every few paces to admire the baroque murals—his baroque murals. Quite a bit of work, all this. And quite a feather in his cap. Took him almost two months, dragging out the paint pots every morning, throwing down the tarp. But worth it, and not just financially. Because from now on, for decades to come, great ladies and rich men—patrons of the theatre!—are going to pause every evening on their way to a private loge and admire his wood nymphs and harlequins. Are going to notice his signature (E. Shinn, printed boldly on an up slant) while puffing cigarettes during intermission. This isn’t some two-week gallery show, this is—immortality. And Sloan!—Henri!—Glackens!—Luks! wonder why he bothers with decorative work? Have the gall to sneer at it. The knuckleheads!

Shinn finds an unoccupied box, slips behind the red drapery and sits down. The ingénue, meanwhile, is clenching her fists, is pleading for mercy. (Where has he seen her before?) The swaggering, dissolute villain pours himself a drink. And now another figure enters the scene: a young, clean-shaven minister with his slicked-down hair centrally parted.

Propping his elbows on the railing, Shinn watches everything with keen attention, studying how the actors move in relation to one another—memorizing every gesture and wigwag not only as a painter, but as a potential stage director. The ingénue turns suddenly and flings open her left hand, spreading all of her fingers—and that motion burns itself into Shinn’s brain. And will be there to retrieve whenever he wants it. Tomorrow—next summer—whenever. Thanks to his newspaper training. To his years in Philadelphia as a sketchman for the Press, the Ledger, the Inquirer.

He’s not a sentimental man, heaven knows, but that short period of his life, when he was eighteen, nineteen years old—it still seems…magical. Riding on barges, police wagons, fire engines, rough-sketching bridge-jumpers, mass-murderers, charred remains. Then racing back to the art department, tacking a fresh sheet of paper to a slanted table, and turning out a finished picture—drawing with a cheap, loaded brush while the photo-engraver breathed down his neck. Hurry it up, kid, hurry it up!

God, he misses those days. Misses the practical jokes, the incessant badinage (Gruber kidding Luks kidding Preston kidding Glackens kidding Sloan kidding Shinn), the indoor games of catch, the poker tournaments. The Sketchmen Olympics.When you’d be given thirty seconds (…twenty…seventeen…sixteen…five…four…three) to memorize the contents of a cluttered room—Time’s up!

Glackens always won, was always the champ. Him with his goddamn photographic memory—he could recollect everything, down to the very last pin and paperclip.

And Luks—George Luks invariably took the booby prize.What had he scoped in the room during his thirty seconds? A dinosaur, a steam engine, the ghost of Lincoln, and a couple of naked ladies. (But, then, accuracy was never his aim. Even on the job. When Luks was supposed to be out covering a strike or a big murder trial, he’d actually be across the street chugging beer in O’Malley’s saloon. He’d stagger back to the office just before deadline, pick up a pen, and—presto!—forty or fifty disgruntled union men, or a defendant looking glum and anxious. No problem. Unless, of course, the murderer happened to be a murderess, or the strike had turned unexpectedly into a riot.)

In those Philadelphia days, George Luks was probably Shinn’s closest friend. They even roomed together for a while on Girard Avenue. An unlikely pair: Luks in his late twenties, Shinn in his late teens; Luks a drunk, Shinn a teetotaler; Luks exuberant, loud, impulsive, Shinn restrained and cautious. They did, however, both share a passion for clothing. But while Shinn preferred tailored suits in a pin-check or a subtle plaid, Luks favored black-and-white striped sack coats, turtleneck sweaters, pegged trousers. A black bowler hat.

It’s a wonder to Shinn—still!—that he survived such a roommate. Luks pelting him with spaghetti…pretending—for hours!—to be an insurance salesman, a trained seal, an unwed mother in the snow…using the bed as a trampoline or sitting on the windowsill weeping his eyes red over some maudlin poem in the Saturday paper…and throwing up like Caligula every other night.

Rinse out your mouth, George, and put on a clean shirt. We’re late for work….


After having come through her crisis, the ingénue is safely in the arms of the handsome young minister. And Shinn is trying now to determine whether she’s the same young actress he met and chatted up last week at Elsie de Wolfe’s house. Whose perfume was so intoxicating. And who’d listened with such a charming smile while he told her of his frequent trips to Paris, his first-name friendships with Clyde Fitch and Julia Marlowe, his one-man shows at Boussod’s, Kraushaar’s, Knoedler’s. Whose golden-brown eyes had grown big as doubloons when he’d mentioned selling pictures to Goulds and Astors and Vanderbilts. If only Flossie hadn’t been there.

Is it the same woman? What Shinn wouldn’t give now for a pair of opera glasses! As the curtain is dropping, he gets up, hurries downstairs, and goes backstage. Where: I’m sorry, sir, says the stage doorkeeper, but no one is allowed to come—oh, it’s you, Mr. Shinn. Good evenin’, sir.

Mr. Shinn. Good evenin’, sir.

Hello, Denny, says Shinn, sliding a buff card from his moneyfold. All he has to write with is a pencil (he has a pocketful of them) but it’ll do. He jots a brief note (greatly admired your performance…lobster dinner at Café Martin?) then offers the card, along with a dollar bill, to the old doorkeeper. Who declines both, with earnest regret. And nods at the gray-mustached Johnny (a broker by day) standing in a crush hat and an evening suit alongside a flat of scenery. He holds a dozen red roses in a green florist’s wrapper.

Shinn is disgusted—why, that old goat could be the ingénue’s grandfather!—but he takes defeat gracefully, with a shrug. If not this one, someone else. If not tonight, tomorrow.

On his way out of the theatre, he overhears several stage hands discussing an actor named—Jackson? Who strangled himself to death yesterday with a trunk strap in the Hotel Gerard. Hanged himself, says one, from a water pipe. Because his memory had failed—at least that’s what he’d written in his suicide note. The poor bastard, thinks Shinn. The poor, sorry bastard. To lose it, to just lose your talent is something he can’t imagine ever happening to him. How could it? If his hand falters, he can always sing. And if his voice goes, well, he could always dance….

Shinn lives at 112 Waverly Place, downtown. By the time he gets home (by cab again) it’s long past eleven. His wife is already in bed. But I’m not asleep, she calls. Come sit. Talk to me. Shinn throws his hat and gloves on the sofa and goes into the bedroom. Flossie’s hair is unpinned, and she’s wearing a pale-blue nightdress with a round collar and a fancy yoke. Shinn thinks that she looks—that she looks beautiful. He leans over the bed and kisses her on the cheek. And she wants to know how the meeting went. Fine, fine, he says. George was in rare form. Everything seems to be shaping up. Davies is almost ready to lay out the catalog. Sloan’s volunteered to do all the photography.

And so on, for a good ten minutes.

Flossie listens attentively, then asks Shinn if he went out anywhere after the meeting. No, he says. Not really. He walked some of the others to Shanley’s, but decided he was too tired to gab and came straight home. And now, thinking once again about that young actress—about her long white throat, the way she twisted her body, flung out her arms—he runs a hand over Flossie’s shoulder, but she flinches. Recoils.

And there it is: the only truly bad luck Shinn has ever known. Such a beautiful woman, and she—

Is utterly revolted by The Act. Cannot bear to be…stabbed.

Ah, well. After ten years together, his disappointment—so acute, so excruciating, so angry at first—has dwindled to this: ah, well. They are friends. Best friends. They are that. At least.

Ah, well.

He kisses her again, on the nape of her neck, bids her good night, and goes into his studio. Turns on several lamps, sits down at his board. He smokes a cigarette. Another. Then takes out a box of red chalk and a sheet of good paper. And passes a most pleasant hour drawing.

Chorus girls and shop girls in a variety of beguiling poses, from memory.

Continue to read CHAPTER SEVEN →