Justin McCarthy’s life has the peculiar twists of a riches-to-rags-to-recognition story. Unfailing in his belief that he was a talented painter, his work was not understood or appreciated until forty years after he started creating art from unfortunate and inauspicious beginnings.
Justin McCarthy was born on May 13, 1891, in Hazelton, Pennsylvania but raised in Weatherly, the eldest son of Welsh native John L. McCarthy, and Floretta Mussleman, daughter of a well-respected Weatherly family. His only sibling, a younger brother, was given his father’s name, John Jr.
John L. McCarthy was a newspaperman and investor. Editor of the Hazelton Sentinel, his family prospered through his successful investments. McCarthy became the wealthiest man in town and built a house the local townspeople referred to as ‘the mansion’. The house had an attic with a small theater where family and friends could stage plays, and the elder McCarthy, himself an amateur artist, painted his sons’ rooms with murals, perhaps sparking an artistic interest in young Justin.
This may sound like an idyllic childhood, but things were not so rosy for Justin. His father overtly favored his younger brother, John Jr., whose personality was lively and outgoing. In comparison, Justin was introverted, awkward, and timid, which lead to harsh judgment from his father. However, Justin's mother was a beacon of support, and the two maintained a close relationship.
Tragedy suddenly struck the family in 1907. John Jr. came down with pneumonia and died. His heartbroken father, greatly upset over the loss of the boy, took the family to Europe, seeking solace and escape. However, Justin was often left alone and lonely on this trip. He took to spending time in the Louvre and other museums, admiring and studying the finest masterpieces of Western art which he would remember for the rest of his life. Though later he would claim that he only spent so much time at the Louvre because it was an inexpensive hang-out, his vivid recollections indicate that there was some impression made upon him by the work he saw.
The family was further devastated by the death of McCarthy Sr. in 1908. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear, but it is generally supposed that he committed suicide, which may have had something to do with the family being left in financial ruin. Mrs. McCarthy turned to teaching to support herself and her son, as they continued to live in the family home. Justin cultivated the gardens and orchards, selling fruits and vegetables to generate income.
Not giving up on a future for her son, Floretta McCarthy saved enough money to send Justin to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He passed his first year exams in 1911, but the second year was to be his downfall and he failed. He had a nervous breakdown while studying with a lawyer friend of the family, in hope of catching up, and was subsequently sent to a private institution. The expenses proved to be too much, and in the summer of 1915, was admitted to Rittersville State Hospital for the Insane. He stayed there until July 1920.
It was at this time that McCarthy began to create art. He would later say, when remembering this period in his life that “I forgot who I was.” In fact, Lee Kogan writes, ”While hospitalized, McCarthy began to draw, often signing his works with names like Prince Dashing or Gaston Deauville.”(1) He only showed his early work to his mother, who continued to be encouraging and supportive.
After leaving the hospital, Justin and his mother returned to Weatherly. Justin, an avid sports fan, played pool and got involved managing a local baseball team. He kept working on his art, exploring a wide variety of materials and subjects. His interest in sports is seen in some of his paintings, and though movie stars and beautiful girls were another favorite subject, Justin’s shyness prevented any real relationships in his personal life.
McCarthy's mother died in 1940, but he continued to live in their home, earning money by selling a variety of produce and even liniment. He tried his hand at a number of jobs: working in a warehouse, at a cement company carrying bags of cement, and as a chocolate mixer. During World War II, he worked at Bethlehem Steel as a machinist’s assistant, but was let go soon after the war. He tried working with oil paints for the first time while working at the plant.
After 1950, his primary medium became oil paints. The old house piled up with paintings, rooms closed off one by one as they became full of work and other items, until Justin was living in two rooms, heated by a kerosene stove, where he slept on a cot. He exhibited his work at outdoor fairs, but sold few, if any, paintings.
It was at one of these outdoor art fairs in Stoudsburg, Pennsylvania where Dorothy and Sterling Strauser, both artists and collectors in their own right, saw McCarthy’s work. Describing her first encounter with his paintings in 1962, Dorothy Strauser says, “I noticed first his ancient auto decorated with paintings of tigers, roses, lions, chrysanthemums and then I found his paintings. No display racks, no clothes line, no easels, just the paintings thrown helter skelter on the grass of the courthouse lawn.” Examining them further was a revelation: “I looked and looked and then it occurred to me – if I could see these paintings hanging in a gallery, framed and lighted, I would want to collect them.”(2) Sterling Strauser writes about McCarthy’s work: “It challenges the esthetic backbone of any painting hanging near it.”(3)
The Strausers, who were at the fair showing their own work, became staunch advocates of his painting. McCarthy’s work was later included in major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. As time went on, his work became slightly more abstract due to failing eyesight, but he continued on until his death in Weatherly, Pennsylvania in 1977.
McCarthy painted what he saw in the world brought to him through various media. His art is populated with glamorous people, exotic places and animals, and even religious imagery. Even though he spent his whole life in Weatherly, the world came to him through print media and magazines, movies and television. He saw much during his lifetime – two world wars, the explosion of pop culture and media in America, and continuously changing political and fashion environments. He documented all of these themes and more in his distinct manner as he saw them. Tom Armstrong, Former Director of the Whitney Museum of Art states, “He was genuinely involved in the world he created, and his work was inseparable from the fantasy he saw in everyday life.”(4)
As an American self-taught artist, he invites comparisons unusual for the genre, as Nancy Green Karlis Thoman writes: “McCarthy’s intense line, nonnaturalistic color and exaggerated drawing are more characteristic of German Expressionism than of most eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American folk art, which is composed of broad areas of flat color and flat, bold patterns and designs.”(5)
An essay by Lee Kogan which includes excerpts of a telephone interview with Sterling Strauser (conducted by Linda Hartigan, Aug. 10, 1989) puts McCarthy in perspective with other twentieth century painters. Kogan writes: “Sterling Strauser once said that McCarthy was a “naïve expressionist.”
[According to Strauser] people often found it difficult to believe that “he was a self-taught naïve, because…some of his things look like Emil Nolde, some look like Milton Avery – people that he was not aware of at all. They look like Ernst Kirchner. Some of his watercolors look like Demuth. This is all purely accidental.” Strauser added, “He said he was painting for the ages. He didn’t know that his work was quirky. He thought he was painting straight.”(6)
(1) Kogan, Lee. “Justin McCarthy” in Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen, edited by Gail Treschsel (Birmingham: University of Mississippi Press, 1995)
(2) Strauser, Dorothy. “Discovering an Artist” in Justin McCarthy exhibition catalogue, curated by Ute Stebich (Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1984)
(3) Strauser, Sterling. “A Letter to the Editor of This Catalogue” in Justin McCarthy exhibition catalogue, curated by Ute Stebich (Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1984)
(4) Armstrong, Tom. “An Introduction” in Thoman, Nancy Green Karlis. “Justin McCarthy” in Justin McCarthy exhibition catalogue, curated by Ute Stebich (Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1984)
(5) Thoman, Nancy Green Karlis. “Justin McCarthy” in Justin McCarthy exhibition catalogue, curated by Ute Stebich (Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1984)
(6) Kogan (1995), page 129
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