Justin McCarthy was born to a wealthy family in Weatherly, Pennsylvania. After a series of family tragedies and a reversal of fortune, he went to study law at the University of Pennsylvania, but suffered a nervous breakdown after his second year of studies and was institutionalized until 1920.
But, during this time, he began painting. Although his art would remain largely unrecognized for decades, he created a expressionist body of work that documents historical events and the fabric of popular culture in the United States during the twentieth century.
Justin McCarthy had been painting for more than forty years wehn he was discovered at a local outdoor art show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, by the watercolor artist Dorothy Strauser. Dorothy's first thought when she spotted his work was, "If I had seen these in a museum I would have thought they were great." Her husband, Sterling, also a painter and collector, agreed, and the following year they acquired their first McCarthy painting by offering the artist the exact amount of money he needed to fix his car. The Strausers collected and promoted McCarthy's work and remained his close friends until his death in 1977.
McCarthy often brought vegetables to staff members at various museums in appreciation for exhibiting his work. At a comprehensive solo exhibition held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he was asked to speak following opening remarks and an eloquent presentation by another exhibiting artist, Elijah Pierce. McCarthy rose, quietly said, "Thank you very much for inviting me," and then sat down."
- Lee Kogan, director of the Folk Art Institute, New York
Excerpt from Self-Taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection, 2001, University of Illinois Press. Available Online
Click here to read a biography of Justin McCarthy in our 'About the Artists' section.
An often-explored theme in McCarthy's paintings are popular entertainers and Hollywood stars.
Assemblage of Movie Stars puts together a number of famous faces, including the comedic legends Laurel and Hardy, Lou Costello, and Harpo Marx.
This image is of Freddie Trenkler, a famous comedic ice skater and performer with the Ice Capades.
Click here to view a short mulimedia show about McCarthy's Marilyn, with image details and narration by collection curator Katherine Murrell.
(Real Audio player required. To download, visit www.real.com).
Another favorite subject of McCarthy’s were glamorous women. His renditions are bold and exaggerated, decadent and overwhelming in their bright colors and spectacular distortions.
The power and excitement that McCarthy demonstrates in his painting can also be found in his more linear works. This drawing illustrates a scene from the story
In Thunderhead, McCarthy’s pen emphasizes the force and movement of these two horses.