Although Joseph Decker never achieved an important artistic reputation during his lifetime, his varied career encompassed more than thirty productive years. Born to a carpenter and his wife in 1853 in Wurtemberg, Germany, Decker emigrated with his family to America at the age of fourteen. He was first apprenticed to a Brooklyn house painter, then worked as a sign painter. In the late 1870s he began to take evening drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and by the end of that decade was exhibiting portraits and landscapes at the Brooklyn Art Association (also at the NAD in 1878). In the fall of 1879 Decker travelled to Munich, where he embarked on a year's study. His teacher there was the conservative and highly respected history painter Wilhelm Lindenschmidt (1829-1895).
Upon his return to the United States, Decker exhibited his work in the annual shows of the National Academy of Design, the Brooklyn Art Association, the Society of American Artists, and the Art Institute of Chicago. By the end of the decade, despite a lack of critical approbation, he felt secure enough to take a studio in Manhattan. In 1889 he exhibited at the Buffalo International Fair. Although he tackled varied subjects throughout the 1880s, his primary concern in those years was still life painting, and his still-life subjects were most often edibles such as fruits and nuts, rather than man-made objects.
The following decade was one of transformation for the artist. He returned to Brooklyn, stopped exhibiting his work, and showed increased interest in landscapes. Most importantly, his style in all subjects showed a dramatic evolution from a crisp and linear method to a softer, more atmospheric approach. His admiration for the landscapes of George Inness was finally expressed in the Barbizon and Tonalist-inspired scenes he created.
In addition to still lifes and landscapes, Decker also painted genre subjects, some portraits, and novelties such as the pictures in which he incorporated the shape of the artist's palette with finger-hole into the compositions. He became, as well, a restorer of Chinese porcelains for the well-known American collector Thomas B. Clarke. Clarke was Decker's most important patron, eventually owning eight paintings by him.
Although he had a wife and five children, Decker often travelled to Germany for long periods and was reported to have been an inattentive husband and father. By all accounts he was fond of animals, however, and included his pet squirrel in several of his paintings. Decker died in the charity ward of a Brooklyn hospital 1 April 1924. His work was virtually forgotten until its rediscovery by art historian Alfred Frankenstein in 1949 and not widely known until the 1960s. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Cooper, Helen A. "The Rediscovery of Joseph Decker." The American Art Journal 5 (May 1978): 55-71.
Gerdts, William Joseph Decker (1853-1924): Still Lifes, Landscapes and Images of Youth. Exh. cat. Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, 1988.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 122-123.