Justin McCarthy American, 1891-1977


The eldest son of John McCarthy, the very affluent publisher of the Hazleton Sentinel newspaper, Justin McCarthy lived most of his life in Weatherly, Pennsylvania. After his younger brother died of pneumonia in 1907, the family traveled to Paris, where McCarthy frequently visited the Louvre. Soon after their return home John McCarthy died in 1908, and the McCarthys lost their family fortune. McCarthy attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School but failed final exams in his second year and suffered a serious nervous breakdown. He spent five years in the Rittersville State Home for the Insane in Pennsylvania, where he began drawing and painting, signing his early works with pseudonyms such as “Gaston Deauville” and “Prince Dashing.” After treatment he returned to the family mansion and lived with his mother, and he continued to make art while he grew and sold vegetables and fruits on the mansion grounds to support himself. His mother died in 1940, leaving him alone in the tumbledown mansion, which he filled with unsold paintings.

McCarthy’s range of subjects was wide; he painted and drew nature (landscapes and still lifes), historical or biblical events, and portraits of sports celebrities, movie stars, and fashion models. He had a special penchant for stylish women, Marilyn Monroe, Marie Prevost, and Linda Darnell among them. His fascination with mass media iconography makes him a precursor of Pop Art, although his style varied greatly, ranging from detailed cartoon-like drawings to abstracted and expressionistic compositions emphasizing texture, vibrant color combinations, and subjective perception. Versatile in his choice of materials, he worked in watercolor, crayon, graphite, ink, oil (his principal medium in the 1950s and 1960s), and acrylic (which he started using in the early 1970s) on cardboard, Masonite, canvas, and found paper.

McCarthy was unrecognized for most of his life and held an assortment of menial jobs, working for Penn Dixie Cement, Just Born Candy Company, Bethlehem Steel, and Allentown State Memorial Hospital. He lived a secluded life in Weatherly but enjoyed going to the movies, watching sports, and the Ice Capades, which he depicted in several works. He occasionally sold his work from his home and at regional outdoor art fairs. In 1960 Dorothy and Sterling Strauser—collectors and important supporters of folk art—discovered him at an outdoor show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and included him in the “Strauser Circle,” a group of artists that the couple discovered and sponsored. The Strausers were pivotal in -McCarthy’s inclusion in Seventeen Naïve Painters, a 1966–67 traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shortly after, as his health began to deteriorate, McCarthy moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he died in 1977.

McCarthy’s work is in the Akron Art Museum (Ohio), the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the Birmingham Museum of Art, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (Chicago), the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France), the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.).