Joseph Pickett


Pickett was one of the first twentieth-century self-taught artists to be recognized by the writer and curator Holger Cahill and is still regarded as one of the century’s outstandingartists. His only surviving works are three attributed paintings, a possible fourth, and at least one drawing in colored pencil on paper, called The Old and the New. Pickett’s paintings record something of the history and landscape of his own small town: New Hope, Pennsylvania, just over the bridge from Lambertville, New Jersey. From the beginning of the twentieth century, this area with its splendid scenery—wooded hills along the banks of the Delaware River, an old canal, mills, andfarmland—attracted artists and photographers.Pickett’s father, Edward, had come to New Hope in 1840 to repair canal locks and became a canal boat builder. Pickett worked with his father and learnedcarpentry from him but practiced it only briefly. Instead, Pickett traveled with carnivals and fairs and ran concessions such as cane racks, knife boards, and shootinggalleries. He ran a successful rifle concession at picnic grounds at nearby Neshaminy Falls, where prosperous Philadelphians went on Sunday outings. Pickett may havemet his future wife, Emily (whose birth name is unknown) at Neshaminy. They were married in the mid-1890s, settled in New Hope, and opened a grocery and generalstore there, on Mechanic Street. The store sign, “Pickett,” showed a landscape with a large tree; it was perhaps a backdrop scene Pickett had painted for his shootinggallery. In 1912, Pickett moved the store to Bridge Street, near the railroad station and the canal, and applied his carpentry skills to build an addition for living quarters.From the time of his marriage until the year he died, Pickett painted in the back room of his store. At first he used house paint; later, he worked in oil on canvas. Hismethod was slow and labor-intensive. He would often spend years on a single painting in order to get the desired texture, sometimes mixing sand and shells with pigment for a particular effect. His style is characterized by this build-up of texture to simulate topography, concrete, the bark of trees, and struc tures such as a railroadtrestle; and by a flattened arbitrary perspective, liberties with scale, and bright colors.Pickett honored George Washington in two of his paintings. In Washington under the Council Tree (1890–1918), the general is shown on horseback under alegendary chestnut tree with a 22-foot trunk, at York and Trenton Roads; according to local folklore, this was where Washington planned his surprise attack on theHessian army at Trenton. However, Pickett was not much concerned with historical accuracy.In Coryell’s Ferry (1890–1918), Washington, shown on the crest of ahill, is a tiny figure peering through a telescope, while his horse waits off to one side in midground. This event actually took place in the winter of 1776, when theContinental troops were camped at the ferry crossing, but Pickett’s landscape is lush and green, with swaying trees, as if in spring.Pickett also documented Manchester Valley, where the railroad came to the town of New Hope, changing the bucolic landscape forever. According to Cahill andGauthier, Pickett shows a remarkable sense of design and craftsmanship “of a very inventive kind” in Manchester Valley and is “one of the most authetic and importantof the masters of folk and popular art.”In 1918, Pickett sent one of his paintings to an annual exhibition sponsored by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was rejected but nevertheless received thevotes of three jurors—the artists William L.Lathrop, Robert Henri, and Robert Spencer.When Pickett died, his wife tried to sell his paintings at an auction. The high bids were a mere dollar each, so she herself bought the paintings and donated the masterpiece, Manchester Valley, to New Hope High School. Lloyd Ney, an artist in New Hope, saw the two paintings of George Washington at the WorthingtonBrothers’ Garage, which then stood on the site of Pickett’s old store on Bridge Street. Ney paid fifteen dollars for the two but traded them to a local art dealer, R.Moore Price, for fifty dollars’ worth of frames.Paintings by Pickett are in the permanent collections of three museums. Washington under the Council Tree, Coryell’s Ferry, Pennsylvania is in the Newark Museum (New Jersey); Coryell’s Ferry, 1776 is in the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York); and Manchester Valley is in the Museum of Modern Art(New York).