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Friday, June 19, 2015

Joseph Pickett

Manchester Valley, Joseph Pickett
Very rarely (if ever) have I begun an article on an artist having only five or six, of his or her paintings waiting to present. Usually I have a bare minimum of eight or ten. The reason is that any artist having so few surviving works more than likely would rate as pretty insignificant in standing amid the thousands of others having painted their hearts out down through the ages. The American folk-artist, Joseph Pickett, very definitely falls into that category. However this is not the first time I've presented his work. In discussing Folk Art in my book, Art Think (right column) I mentioned both Pickett and an even less well-known artist from a generation earlier, Linton Park. They both have in common that they each have their work displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Linton Park, born in 1826 was twenty-two years older than Joseph Pickett (1848). Ironically, the work of Linton Park is even more rare than that of Pickett, though he was, by traditional standards, instinctively, a somewhat better draughtsman than Pickett.

Coryell’s Ferry, 1776, (painted after 1913), Joseph Pickett 
Pickett was born in New Hope, Pennsylvania, a little burg in Bucks County on the far eastern border of the state just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. At one time the village was a half-way rest stop on the road from Philadelphia to New York City. George Washington is reputed to have once slept there. At that time, the town was known as Coryell's Ferry, after the owner of the boat taking travelers across the river. In fact, one of Pickett's paintings bears the title, Coryell’s Ferry, 1776 (above). The name of the town was changed after a devastating fire in 1790 in response to their struggle to rebuild. Pickett's life is somewhat adventurous, starting in his youth with his penchant for running away with every passing circus, to working as a carpenter, shipbuilder, and storekeeper. After his marriage in 1893 at the ripe old age of forty-five, he settled down, opening a general store in New Hope. He funded his new enterprise using earnings from an earlier shooting gallery (a trade derived from his circus days). By most accounts, it wasn't until he retired around 1913, at the age of sixty-five, that Pickett began to paint, so it's little wonder so few of his works survive. He died in 1918. His works weren't "discovered" by the art world until eastern art collectors took a liking to Folk Art and "naïve" (meaning self-taught) artists in the 1930s.

Lehigh Canal, Sunset New Hope, PA, Joseph Pickett
Joseph Pickett's work is nothing if not "naïve." One glimpse of his colorful landscapes would indicate he had absolutely no knowledge of linear perspective (or any other kind, for that matter). His work is Folk Art in the purist sense of the words. He makes Grandma Moses look like an accomplished academician. Yet, there seems to be an instinctive appreciation for flat patterning and an observed sense of color. Like virtually all Folk Art, Pickett's work is full of fascinating details to the point they overwhelm any and all appearances of realism. His Lehigh Canal, Sunset, New Hope, PA (above), is typical of his attention to detail but total disregard for the niceties of realistic illusion.

New Hope, (attributed to Joseph Pickett)
In researching Pickett's work, trying to flesh out the number of paintings I might have to choose from, I ran into an troubling reality having to do with Folk Art. Take a look at the painting above, titled simply, New Hope. Is that the work of a self-taught, folk artist? Granted, there is little regard (or need) for linear perspective in the middle-ground houses. However, in none of Pickett's other works is there any effort to paint reflections in the water. Along the background ridge, there is no attempt at the usual over-emphasized details seen in Pickett's other pieces (and indeed in virtually all true Folk Art. This painting even features realistic, volumetric shadows on the buildings and the bridge buttress. Pickett cared little for such illusions. In fact, over all, the painting technique seen above is too "slick" to be that of Joseph Pickett. Moreover, nothing is "happening" in the painting, unlike Pickett's other works. Yet, plain as day, in the lower right corner, is a signature, "JOSEPH PICKETT NEW HOPE, PA (below). That alone is probably the strongest indication that this work is a fake. I've looked, and so far as I can find, Pickett did not affix a readable signature to any other work, certainly not as readable as that below.

The signature is simply too good to be true.

However, two different sources list New Hope as having been by the hand of Joseph Pickett. One is an online art auction house (Clars Auction Gallery Catalog - April 14th, 2014, Fine Art & Antique Auction). The other, (AskArt) is an online art auction reference site where paying members can look up the sales history of a given work. I'm not a paying member. All of which serves to underline the fact that investing in Folk Art is a risky endeavor. Probably no other area of the art market is more rife with counterfeiting. Some of this forgery is quite expert. This example, obviously, is not. Otherwise I wouldn't have noticed it in passing. There is, of course, good reason for this problem. Such fraud is too easy. With very little effort, virtually anyone who can afford the cost of art supplies is a self-taught folk artist. Some, however, can't wait until after they've been dead fifteen or twenty years to be discovered.

Houses by a Stream, Joseph Pickett


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