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More Art History Revealed at 8 West 13th Street

It’s sometimes almost incredible to think about the sheer volume of artistic talent that has been located in our neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. It’s perhaps even more overwhelming when multiple artists were present within one building over the span of just a few short years. Such was the case at 8 West 13th Street in the area South of Union Square, which was home to at least eight different artists’ studios in the mid-20th century. We’ve already discussed a couple of these artists, and today will delve into the biography of another, a painter and illustrator whose story may not be well known, but whose body of work is prolific, and includes several pieces that have pervaded American culture in such a way that you’ve probably come across his artwork, whether you realize it or not!

Symeon Shimin (1902-1984)

The Russian-born Jewish artist and illustrator Symeon Shimin (1902-1984) had a studio at 8 West 13th Street in 1940 (and possibly longer; our research into his timeline in the neighborhood is ongoing). His family had immigrated from Astrakhan, Russia, in 1912, and settled in Brooklyn, where they opened a delicatessen in a modest building; they took up residence in two small rooms in the back.

A creative child, Shimin was always drawn to the arts, but not necessarily, at first, to painting. He is quoted as saying, “I do not know by what mystery or alchemy I was transformed into becoming an artist – painter – when up to the age of eleven years, I wanted above all else to be a musician.” Shimin’s parents felt that music would not be a lucrative career, and so he quickly found a way to pursue art by other means. At the age of 16, Shimin took on an apprenticeship for a commercial artist, to help support his family, while also attending night classes at Cooper Union to hone his own craft.

“Vanity Fair” January 1929, cover art by Symeon Shimin

Shimin’s training in the commercial art world led to several unique opportunities. He began working as a freelance commercial artist, and at the age of 26, was commissioned to illustrate the January cover of Vanity Fair. He then embarked on a year-and-a-half long tour of Europe, studying with artists in France and Spain, and subsequently traveled to Mexico to gain further knowledge and inspiration.

Original 1939 poster for “Gone with the Wind,” illustrated by Symeon Shimin.

Upon his return to the United States in the early 1930s, Shimin became involved in painting large-scale murals for the film industry. He grew his reputation in Hollywood, and created the advertising artwork for a number of feature films, including the original poster for the controversial 1939 blockbuster Gone With the Wind, right around the time that he took up studio space at 8 West 13th Street.

(Perhaps coincidentally, Shimin’s studio was barely a block from the MacMillian Co. Headquarters, where the novel “Gone With the Wind” was first published in 1936 — among the many publishing houses centered in this neighborhood South of Union Square — and within footsteps of the location some of the key sites of the early film industry, which was also centered in this neighborhood.)

Symeon Shimin, Contemporary Justice and the Child, 1936-1940, tempera on canvas, Department of Justice Building, Washington, D.C.

He also did some work for the WPA, including painting a mural for the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., in 1936, which is still in place today. This outsized mural explores a number of themes that Shimin would return to throughout his work: he often emphasized depictions of social justice, pertaining to criticisms of child labor, and racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequalities — topics that related to his own experiences growing up as a working class immigrant in Brooklyn.

Symeon Shimin, Lovers, c. 1980, oil on canvas. Private collection.

Further into his career in the 1950s, Shimin shifted his focus to the illustration of children’s books. He illustrated nearly 60 books over three decades, including two that he wrote himself, and won a number of prestigious awards for this work. Later in life, he also returned to painting on canvas. Much of his oeuvre falls within the realm of Social Realism, during a time when many of his contemporaries were positioning themselves within the emerging Abstract Expressionist Movement. His paintings have been displayed at some of the nation’s most prominent galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute in Chicago, Provincetown Art Gallery in Massachusetts, and more.

Berenice Abbott, portrait of Symeon Shimin, c. 1930s, gelatin silver print.

Symeon Shimin has several known connections to other artists who lived and worked in Greenwich Village during his lifetime. He was the subject of several photographs by Berenice Abbott, a fellow Village artist, in the 1930s, and Chaim Gross called him “a painter who knows the craft of drawing and painting which in his hands becomes great art” — though it is currently unclear as to whether they were friends, or just familiar with each other’s work.

Tune in to the upcoming part three of this blog to learn about several other artists who had studio space at 8 West 13th Street concurrently, and in the meantime, explore our South of Union Square Artists Tour to find out more about the bountiful array of sites in the area connected to the great artists and art movements of the last century and a half. And to urge city officials to support landmark designation to protect this neighborhood, click here.

One response to “More Art History Revealed at 8 West 13th Street

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article on my father and his art.
    For anyone interested to know more you can go to the website : symeonshimin.com where information can also be found on the recently published award winning book”The Art of Symeon Shimin” that is available on Amazon, Ingram and through other sellers.

    It may also be of interest re: Village Preservation, that Symeon Shimin also owned, for a brief time, the house at 125 West 11th St. where evidently the Lincoln Memorial was designed. This house was later owned by Valerie Bettis, a well known dancer and choreographer.

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