The Garden State has been a source of inspiration for famous artists for centuries. Wax sculpture, landscape painting, watercolor, and modern art are among the many styles that artists with New Jersey roots have used through the years.
In fact, the first American sculptor was from New Jersey. Born in 1725, Patience Lovell Wright of Bordentown began wax sculpting as a child. As she got older, Wright put her work together in an exhibit. Her sculptures of famous public figures were amazing in their likenesses.
Wright moved to England in 1772. There she created new wax models of famous people, including the king and queen. People loved her work. Her sculpture of British political leader William Pitt was displayed in Westminster Abbey.
In addition to her artwork, Wright was an American patriot. During the Revolutionary War, she welcomed American war prisoners in her London home. Legend says she sent British military secrets back to America hidden in wax figures, but there is no proof of this.
Patience wasn’t the only one in the Wright family with artistic talent. Her son Joseph was a wax sculptor, too. He was also a painter and a die maker. Her son-in-law John Hoppner was a painter.
A few decades later, another New Jersey sculptor became well known. In 1824 John Frazee of Rahway became the first Native American marble sculptor. Frazee was never formally taught art. He learned to sculpt marble on his own, starting out as a tombstone cutter. You can view some of Frazee’s work online. Check out his busts of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Nathaniel Bowditch, a famous navigator.
In colonial times artists in New Jersey mostly painted portraits, following the artistic trends of the time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, a New Jerseyan found himself at the forefront of a new style of painting.
Asher Brown Durand of Maplewood was considered a leader of the Hudson River School of artists. These artists focused on landscape painting. Their goal was to paint nature the way it really looks.
Durand was one of the first American artists to leave the studio and work outdoors. He went to the Adirondack, Catskill, and White Mountains in the summer to sketch his landscapes and then did his oil paintings in the studio, basing them on his sketches.
After working as an engraver for a Newark firm, Durand began painting portraits in the late 1820s. His love of nature and his friendship with Thomas Cole, the original leader of the Hudson River School, soon caused him to switch his focus to landscape art. Durand closely studied the rocks, trees, and plants that he would later use in his paintings. In addition to his artwork, he served as president of the National Academy of Design from 1845 to 1861.
The year before Durand became president, a young Newark resident exhibited his work for the first time at the National Academy of Design. George Inness would become the next prominent landscape painter with New Jersey ties.
Inness was born in Newburgh, New York, but his family moved to Newark when he was four. Like Durand, George started out as an engraver. He had a couple of months instruction in painting and then started producing his own works. Inness studied the works of Durand and Thomas Cole. His early work is detailed and realistic, like the Hudson River School art.
In 1853, Inness traveled to France. There he was influenced by the Barbizon painters. A decade later he returned live in Eagleswood. Reflecting the French influence, his work strayed from the Hudson River School. Inness now portrayed nature in a larger sense, with less focus on detail. He wanted to show the spirituality of nature.
After some time in New York City and Italy, Inness settled in Montclair, which provided the setting for many of his paintings throughout the rest of his life. Take a look at some of Inness’ paintings, including some pictures of Montclair.
Although he never called New Jersey home, world-renowned artist Winslow Homer saw the Jersey shore as an inspiration for his work. Homer, a master of watercolor, added the human element to landscape painting, showing humans interacting with nature.
Homer began painting in watercolor in the 1870s. Before that, he had worked as an illustrator, gaining fame for his paintings of Civil War soldiers. Homer shifted his focus to man in nature and saw the seashore as an excellent subject. From 1883 to 1892, Homer made frequent stops in Atlantic City and other shore destinations. Homer’s works are considered among the greatest watercolors of all time.
While Homer is often considered the first great watercolorist, John Marin was the leader of his generation. Born in Rutherford and raised by his grandparents in Weehawken, Marin sketched from the time he was a child. He first began using watercolor as a teenager. Marin’s work resembled Impressionist paintings because it was not clearly delineated, but he was never labeled an Impressionist. The coast of Maine served as the primary subject for his work, but he did some early work inspired by New York City.
In 1950, Marin was honored with an exhibition at the State Museum in Trenton. He was called a “recognized master in his own time” in a scroll signed by the governor. Here are some more of Marin’s paintings.
Roy Lichtenstein is one of the most famous modern artists. His distinct, comic book style makes his work amongst the most recognizable in pop art. In 1960, Lichtenstein became an assistant professor at Douglas College at Rutgers University. It was at this time that he began his work in pop art.
Living close to New York City, Lichtenstein had many opportunities to meet with the top pop artists. However, it was a challenge from his son that so drastically focused his career. Roy’s son showed him a Mickey Mouse comic book and told him, “I bet you can’t paint as good as that.” In 1961, Lichtenstein painted six works featuring comic book characters, lettering, and speech balloons that would become the hallmark of his style. Take a look at some of Lichtenstein’s paintings.
Wendell Brooks, a professor at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, is one of New Jersey’s great artists. Brooks works in printmaking. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Art, and the African-American Fine Arts Collection. "Return the Buffalo" is one of his famous prints.
In addition to these artists who have gained international recognition, thousands of other talented artists also call New Jersey home. It’s just a matter of time before another New Jersey artist revolutionizes the American art scene once more. To keep in touch with today’s art scene, visit the NJ Arts Council and Discover Jersey Arts.