Washington Square, New York
Height x width: 22 x 30 in. (55.9 x 76.2 cm)
Medium or Technique
Pastel on paper board
Not On View
Everett Shinn, a painter, muralist, and illustrator, arrived in New York City in 1897. A member of the Eight, a group of realist painters who would become known as the Ashcan School, he loved the spectacle of city life and, like his artistic colleagues, he preferred to seek his subject matter in the slums and middle-class café society. He painted tenement fires, bread lines, and theater scenes, but he especially liked to depict the parks and squares of the city; Washington Square, a 13.5 acre (5.5 hectare) park in the midst of New York City’s Greenwich Village, was his favorite. The elegant square, with its colorful cast of visitors, was a preferred subject for many painters and photographers, among them Shinn’s friends William Glackens [59.658] and John Sloan [37.517]. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the streets surrounding Washington Square, once very exclusive, had become the home of a mixture of middle-class and wealthy old New York families, Italian immigrants, and numerous writers and artists, including Shinn. This bustling nocturnal view of Washington Square is one of more than twenty images that Shinn created of the park between 1899 and 1951. He depicted the square under a variety of weather conditions and at different times of day. In this pastel Shinn rendered the park on a snowy evening as city dwellers rush through.
Shinn had first begun to work in pastel in the 1890s, and it quickly became his favorite medium for capturing the excitement of the metropolis. He developed a method of working in pastel that required rapid execution: he soaked the paper in water, sponged off the excess, and applied the pastel to the wet surface. The color dried to a hard, tempera-like finish with a brilliance not found in the normally chalky surface of pastels. Shinn’s pastels were innovative in another way as well—usually reserved for genteel subjects, Shinn used the medium for more gritty urban views.
Shinn’s background as a reporter-artist for Philadelphia newspapers is evident in the way he portrayed the energy of city life: the quick pastel strokes and diagonal lines of the composition suggest spontaneity. The figures caught in mid-stride making their way through the slush and the bicyclist, head down, struggling through the rutted paths impart a sense of physical exertion. Shinn used the snow to highlight the curve of the bicyclist’s wheel, the gnarled tree branches, and the details of Washington Arch (1892), a monument designed by his friend, the preeminent architect Stanford White.
Shinn was fascinated by the city at night. He began to depict the subject in 1899 in a series of pastels he called New York by Night, which he intended to publish as a book, though the project never materialized. His nocturnal images enabled him to show the glitter of New York life, the yellow dabs of light from apartment windows, and the shining cross of the nearby Judson Memorial Church (1893, also designed by Stanford White). The moonlight bathing the square adds still more drama to the image.
Shinn created another smaller version of this scene entitled Stormy Night in Washington Square (about 1910, private collection), using watercolor and gouache. It was the MFA’s version, however, that Shinn chose to illustrate an article in the New York Times on June 18, 1911, entitled “What Is the Most Beautiful Spot in New York?” Twelve artists were asked to answer that question, and Shinn replied, “When I want to be sure to find beauty I go to Washington Square… . No matter what the conditions may be under which I see it—no matter what my mood may be—I feel almost sure that it will appeal to me as beautiful.”
Janet L. Comey
Signed and dated lower right: E. Shinn 1910
1910, the artist; 1932, given by the artist to his wife, Gertrude Shinn; descended in her family; 2008, partial purchase and anonymous gift to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 26, 2008)
Museum purchase with funds by exchange from The Hayden Collection---Charles Henry Hayden Fund, Bequest of Maxim Karolik and partial anonymous gift