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This entry was taken directly from the “Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American FOLK ART and ARTISTS,” by Chuck and Jan Rosenak.  (Abbeville Press, NYC, 1990).



Born May 13, 1892, Weatherly, Pennsylvania.  Attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  Single.  No children.  Died July 14, 1977, Tucson, Arizona.



Justin McCarthy is considered one of the most important yet enigmatic folk artists of the mid-twentieth century. 

                  McCarthy’s father, John, was a newspaper publisher, gentleman farmer, and, at one time, the richest man in town.  The family lived a lavish life, but soon after the turn of the century suffered a major reversal of fortune.  In 1907 his younger brother, whom his father had favored, died.  The family went to Europe to forget their grief and, soon after their return in 1908, John McCarthy died, leaving the family finances in ruin.  McCarthy went to law school, but he failed the final exams in his second year and could not return.  Shortly thereafter he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.

                  From 1915 to 1920 McCarthy was in the Rittersville (Pennsylvania) State Home for the Insane.  He returned home after his release from the hospital and, during the 1920’s and 1930’s, lived with his mother in the family mansion, selling fruit and vegetables that they grew on the grounds.

                  After his mother’s death in 1940, McCarthy continued to live in the old family mansion and took menial jobs to support himself.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s he worked for Penn Dixie Cement, Just Born Candy Company, Bethlehem Steel, and Allentown State Memorial Hospital.  Although a recluse to a certain extent, McCarthy loved to attend movies, sporting events, and the Ice Capades. 

                  His health failing, McCarthy left his family home to spend time in Tucson, Arizona, where he died in 1977.


Artistic Background

                  The legend of Justin McCarthy—the recluse who lived in a decaying mansion next door to Tweedle Park In Weatherly, Pennsylvania, and painted his way into the Museum of Modern Art—is a matter of history.  McCarthy started drawing around 1920 while he was hospitalized, signing his early work with names like “Prince Dashing.”  He drew continually throughout the following years but did not start to use oils until the late 1940’s, during the period when he was working for the Bethlehem Steel Company.

                  McCarthy sold his work from his mansion and at local fairs, but it remained largely ignored until 1960, when Dorothy Strauser, wife of the artist and collector Sterling Strauser, discovered him at an outdoor show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.  McCarthy soon joined the “Strauser Circle,” which included such other folk artists as Jack Savitsky, Victor Joseph Gatto, “Old Ironsides” Pry, and Charlie Dieter.  Strauser subsidized McCarthy and arranged for him to be included in a  1966-1967 traveling show, “Seventeen Naïve Painters,” organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.



McCarthy was eclectic in his choice of subjects; he would paint anything if it interested him—pretty girls, movie stars, high fashion, politicians, sporting events, personal heroes, flowers, vegetables, animals, or historical events.  He looked at the world with a singular eye, a quiet sense of humor, and in spite of his personal problems and insecurities, the artistic confidence to solve any problem of composition.

                  Through his work, the artist commented on the way the people of his time lived.  He portrayed popular figures without glamour or glitter, and , characteristically, he depiction motion by elongating and exaggerating individuals.



The artist was as eclectic in his choice of materials as in his choice of subject matter.  He drew and painted on anything he had at hand—old file folders, cardboard, Masonite, or canvas—and tried everything from oils, acrylics, and watercolors to crayons, pencils, and pens.  In the 1950s and 1960s oils became McCarthy’s principal medium, and he began to use acrylics in the early 1970s.  His style also varies tremendously, from the highly detailed to the very abstract, making it difficult to place him in any one or two categories.  His work, however, is always intense, with bold lines and strong colors.

                  The size of McCarthy’s drawings and paintings is as varied as the work itself.  Some pieces are as small as 8 by 11 inches, while others (particularly the acrylics) may be as large as 30 by 60 inches.  McCarthy completed many thousands of works over a career that spanned more than thirty years, and no accurate inventory exists.



Justin McCarthy’s work has appeared at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of American Folk Art, all in New York City, as well as in numerous gallery shows.  McCarthy is recognized as a major folk artist of his time, with a reputation that continues to grow.


***On July 8 2007, the largest retrospective of Justin McCarthy’s work to date will open at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading, PA.  The exhibition will have a symposium at the opening featuring distinguished panelists and curators specializing in McCarthy’s life and work.  The Outsider Folk Art Gallery will feature an exhibition which will run concurrently with the GoggleWorks’ entitled “Coal Country,” featuring McCarthy’s work alongside his peer Jack Savitsky, as well as two other artists from the Coal regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania:  Frank Wyso and (nephew) Michael WysoChansky.

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