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Shinn, Earl

    Full Name: Shinn, Earl

    Other Names:

    • Earl Shinn

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1837

    Date Died: 1886

    Place Born: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American)


    Self-taught historian of American art collections and early arbiter of taste. Shinn’s father was Earl Shinn, secretary of the Bricklayers’ Society, and his mother Sarah Comfort, strict Quakers. Shinn graduated from a Quaker school, Westtown School and began work as a real-estate title examiner. In 1859 he left for a life devoted to the arts. He may have served in the (Union) army in the Civil War, and because of his Quaker faith, never documented the event. In 1865 he worked for Frank Leslie’s publications in New York until the death of his parents (and their refusal to allow their son an art career) allowed him to study art in Paris beginning in 1866. At the École des Beaux-Arts, he met Thomas Eakins. Shinn studied under Jean-Leon Gérôme describing his experiences in articles in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin of 1866-1867. He also began pieces for the Nation. Eye problems never fully explained, caused Shinn to give up painting for writing. He returned to Philadelphia joining the Bulletin‘s staff. Shinn began writing on private American art collections in Lippincott’s in 1871. He was appalled at how little the American nouveau riche knew about art. In an attempt both to document the collections of the wealthy and raise the standard of taste, he set about visiting private American art collections. Shinn worked for the Nation between 1872 and 1881 as its art critic, writing under the name Edward Strahan, so as not to blaspheme his Quaker forbear who despised the visual arts. He also wrote art pieces for the Art Amateur and the New York Evening Post. By his own admission, Shinn also wrote anonymous “paid praise” in those same periodicals. In 1878 Shin joined the Tile Club in New York, an Aesthetic-Movement club founded the previous year by the architect Edward Wimbridge and the painter Walter Paris, whose membership included the illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey, and the painter Winslow Homer. The club flourished for a decade. In 1878 Shinn brought out the first of his lavishly executed books on art for the publisher Gebbie & Barrie, The Chefs-d’oeuvre d’art of the International exhibition, 1878 of the Centennial exhibition in Paris introduced Americans to French painters, particularly his teacher, Gérôme. In 1879, Shinn began publishing his documentation of American collecting, with Art Treasures of America, another of the Gebbie & Barrie de luxe publications. When the naugural issue of the Art Amateur appeared in 1879, Shinn was among the first contributors. In the early 1880s, Shinn undertook documenting the art collection and household of W. H. Vanderbilt, published under subscription at $400 a set. He spent 1882 in Paris supervising the hand-colored illustrations in folio size. The first volume appeared in 1883. He died in New York following years of ill health. Shinn’s work today provides invaluable documentation of the American tastes and collections of the immediate post-bellum period. Shinn was the last art critic to assert the Postivistic notion good taste was a rational science. Appealing to American senses of egalitarianism, he asserted that “taste” was not innately born to the privileged, but rather was acquired through experience and education. Art Treasures of America examined 23 collections in depth and noted nearly 100 others, with 142 full-page photogravures of the objects. Shinn championed the Barbizon school painting (still controversial in the United States). His belief that quality art could be diverse allowed him to affirm academic painters, such as Gérôme and Ernest Meissonier, as well as Millet and Camille Corot. Because he never wrote a comprehensive history of art as his immediate successors did, his accomplishment is often undervalued.

    Selected Bibliography

    Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection. 10 vols. Boston: G. Barrie, 1883-1884; [as Edward Strahan:] The Art Treasures of America: being the Choicest Works of Art in the Public and Private Collections of North America. 2 vols. Philadelphia: George Barrie, 1879-1880; Art Triumphs of the Nineteenth Century: a Collection of Eighty Photogravures After the Best Pictures and Statues by Living Artists and Sculptors of Renown. 10 vols. New York: Samuel L. Hall, 1882; and Smith, Francis Hopkinson. A Book of the Tile Clvb. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1886; The Chefs-d’oeuvre d’art of the International Exhibition, 1878. Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1878-1880; Ge´rome: a Collection of the Works of J. L. Ge´rome in one Hundred Photogravures. 2 vols. New York: Samuel L. Hall, 1881; and Walton, William, and Saglio, Andre, and Caffin, Charles H., and Cary, Elizabeth Luther, and Coffin, William A. and Hoeber, Arthur. The Iconographic Dictionary of the Most Important Painters and Sculptors, Ancient and Modern, with Examples of their Work from Public and Private Collections and Speciments of the Work of the Leading Etchers and Engravers. 10 vols. Philadelphia: George Barrie & Sons, 1912ff.; The New Hyperion: From Paris to Marly by way of the Rhine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1874.


    Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art: de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 539 [listed as “Shin”]; Pisano, Ronald G. “The Tile Club.” Magazine Antiques 157 no. 2 (February 2000): 306-313; Koppelman, Constance Eleanore. Nature in Art and Culture: The Tile Club Artists, 1870-1900. Dissertation, State University of New York, Stoney Brook, 1985.


    "Shinn, Earl." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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