First Row at the Opera
Shinn’s passion for the stage dominated his art and his life. It grew out of his boyhood fascination with the circus and his brother’s work at the opera house in their hometown. Once established in New York, Shinn would often produce amateur theatrical performances at his studio with participation of friends and fellow artists. In his art-making, he was a prominent Social Realist painter drawn more to the theater and Park Avenue life than to the Bowery, shifting away from the seamy cultural emphasis of his artist colleagues. In First Row at the Opera he captured the moment of a young woman on stage after a performance. She grips her dress in preparation for a bow and gazes out toward the audience. While a fully developed scene, it retains a spontaneous quality through the washes of color and caricature quality of the figures.
In 1900, shortly after his first major one-person exhibition in New York, Shinn and his wife traveled to England and France. While in Paris, Shinn was inspired by the theater scenes of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. After this trip, his work changed dramatically; he began to paint performers in action and employ unusual vantage points, as perfectly illustrated in First Row at the Opera. Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he refined his drawing skills while employed as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press, along with fellow Social Realists George Luks, William Glackens and John Sloan. Shinn’s interest and training also led him to extensive work as an art director for Hollywood movies and New York theater, playwright and actor along with mural painting and book illustrating.