At the turn of the century in New York, a group of pioneering artists began to portray the city with a fresh and uncompromising style unparalleled at the time. Commonly known as the Ash-can school, the group consisted of Robert Henri, its acknowledged mentor, and George Bellows, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. At the time, the prevalent aesthetic touted a polished style and high finish in a work of art. In marked contrast, the Ashcan artists emphasized subject and meaning--which they often depicted with a rougher and more immediate style. In this way they came to produce an entirely new art which recorded the everyday experiences of urban living, the central subject of their work.
In common with his colleagues, Everett Shinn investigated the drama of city life whether it was in the gritty streets, in a crowded playhouse, or along the waterfront. As a pastelist, Shinn was the finest of the Ashcan school, a position of prominence he achieved early in his career. Through his deft handling of the medium, Shinn translated powerful images of New York that had never before been fully explored in pastel. In this work, for example, The East River at Night, Shinn captures the bustle of a working harbor. With the gray of night as a foil, Shinn depicts the shimmer of numerous ferries and the city lights beyond. In the left foreground, the most prominent boat, a tug, throws smoke from its stack and projects a brilliant highlight of orange onto the scene. It is a dramatic and innovative work of an entirely new kind of aesthetic power.
As a night scene, the work was very likely part of Shinn's unrealized and ambitious project to produce a book entitled New York by Night, which he began in 1899 with the encouragement of his friend, the writer and editor William Dean Howells. Consisting of an extensive set of pictures, the book was intended to depict the breadth and contrasts of the metropolis--according to Shinn, its scope "following every activity of the night until it finished its cycle of comedy and drama on Park Row and its line of newspaper buildings where trucks spread out to stands and stations the news in another dawn." (J. Wong, Everett Shinn, The Spectacle of Life, New York, 2001, p. 20). While the book was never realized, and its images were dispersed, several of the pictures have been identified, including some of the artist's most celebrated, such as Tenements at Hester Street (The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC).
Early on, Shinn's facility with pastel was recognized by many critics. In 1906, for instance, the year Shinn created The East River at Night, the artist and collector A.E. Gallitan described the artist "as a master of pastel," adding that "he knows thoroughly both the possibilities and the limitations of his medium. The material is never strained in endeavoring to get too much out of it; and if technically his pastels are great achievements, pictorially they are also...Shinn has a great contempt to everything academic and does not believe in art schools. This disregard for precedent and academic law has resulted in a decided freshness of vision." (as quoted in E. Deshazo, Everett Shinn: A Figure of His Time, New York, 1974, p. 58-9).