Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Washington Square

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Image of Washington Square

Everett Shinn , (Nov 6, 1876–May 1, 1953)

Washington Square

c. 1945
37 1/2 in. x 41 1/2 in. (95.25 cm x 105.41 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Purchased as the partial gift of The Addison Gallery Associates
Accession Number: 1956.14


For Everett Shinn, the 1940s were a period of looking back upon his life. As one of the two surviving members of the group of artists who had exhibited together as The Eight in 1908, he was asked to write an essay titled "Recollections of the Eight" for the catalogue of a retrospective exhibition of their work held at The Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 1943. Shinn, also the author of a number of plays, planned to write a book on The Eight as well.1

At about the same time as the Brooklyn exhibition was being organized, Shinn received a commission to paint a series of murals for the bar in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, showing the city as it appeared at the turn of the century; for the collector Joseph Pulitzer he also created a painting of the fountain in front of the Plaza that was later placed in the same bar with the murals.2 Together, his text on The Eight for The Brooklyn Museum, the book that he planned on the artists of the group, and the mural commission meant that Shinn, recently divorced from his fourth wife and living again in New York, was spending much of his time immersed in recollections of an earlier stage in his life.

Washington Square, sold to the Addison Gallery in 1956 as a work of 1910, most likely dates from this later period.3 Shinn's paintings are often difficult to date, as he returned to many of the same subjects (or types of subjects) again and again. Nor did his style develop in a linear fashion, since he also returned to techniques that he had used in previous works. While Shinn created numerous pastels of street scenes in Paris and New York early in his career, including views of Washington Square, there is evidence that the Addison painting is related not to these youthful works on paper, but to the Plaza Hotel mural series.

Conceived with broad open areas and discrete centers of anecdotal activity, the highly finished painting differs sharply from Shinn's early pastel street scenes, which reflect the influence of French Impressionism in their sketchy style and pale palette. The Plaza Hotel murals and Washington Square reflect the influence of the realism of the 1930s murals made by government-supported artists; prior to the Depression, American murals had focused on presenting events in terms of allegory using classical figures. The nostalgic presentation of New York before the automobile in Washington Square and the Plaza Hotel mural series is in keeping with the spirit of the 1930s-type presentation; the clusters of anecdotal scenes which are placed in the foreground—like figures on a stage—again is consistent with the art that had come to be popular and familiar to most Americans.

Shinn's Washington Square shows the square in winter looking south from north of the famous arch. Beyond this, the buildings appear dark and mysterious—much like a memory or a vision in a dream. The snowy winter day is cloudy and the light source seems ambiguous, perhaps off to the left in the foreground or behind the arch. Comparison with photographs of the area around 1900 reveal that Shinn took few liberties with the actual landscape and architecture as it was at the turn of the century. At the left, an elegant town house at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square North is visible; in the middle ground and beyond the arch, smoke rises before a tall building on the left (perhaps the Bleeker Street Building several blocks south), while on the right stands the tower of Judson Memorial Church. Each group of figures in the painting seems to be engaged in some joint activity: rushing to get out of the winter wind, sledding, playing patty-cake. Most striking are the two white horses that pull a trolley diagonally away from the center of the painting; the light on their coats gives them a ghostly air. The people, the trolley, and the horses appear almost as if placed against a theatrical backdrop.

While Shinn actually had an apartment on Washington Square in the 1940s, what he would have seen outside his windows was very different from this scene, as the skyline of lower Manhattan had changed dramatically in the intervening years with the addition of numerous tall buildings. Although Shinn reportedly denied using photographs to aid him in his painting, it is reasonable to suppose that he might have consulted old photographs to help him recall the area as it looked many years earlier.4 Small details, such as the short length of the coats worn by the girls frolicking in the center—a style of dress that was common in the 1940s but far too revealing for children in 1900—confirm that this is a view painted in retrospect.

Apart from internal evidence that the painting dates from the 1940s, it appears in a photograph of Shinn's Washington Square apartment taken around 1948-49, displayed prominently on an easel next to the fireplace, a location where an artist might put a recent work in which he takes pleasure and which he perhaps hopes to sell.5 It was a picture that Shinn was justly proud of. In Washington Square, he created a painting that conveys his lifelong interest in city life—a painting conceived by someone with an artist's eye for composition and detail and a writer's flair for creating vignettes of everyday experience.

Gwendolyn Owens, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 465-66.

1. Everett Shinn, "George Luks [previously unpublished memoir]," Archives of American Art Journal 6 (April 1966), editor's note, p. 1.

2. Edith DeShazo, Everett Shinn, 1876-195: A Figure in His Time (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1974), p. 110. For illustrations of the Plaza murals, see pp. l05-09.

3. The source for the date of about 1910 is not certain. The records include a letter from the dealer Victor Spark, which he sent with the invoice, on which is written, probably by someone at the Addison Gallery, the basic information on the painting including the words "painted circa 1910."

4. DeShazo (p. 157) notes that "Although Shinn publicly abhorred the use of photography, there is strong evidence from his files that in later years he used it extensively."

5. The photograph of the apartment is reproduced, ibid., pp. 194-95.

Exhibition List
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