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Joseph Pickett

Born 1848, died 1918, New Hope, Pennsylvania

Joseph Pickett never ventured far from New Hope, Pennsylvania, a town on the banks of the Delaware River. Working for the local carnival, he traveled through his native Bucks County, yet for most of his life he was a fixture in New Hope, working there as a craftsman and storekeeper. When he came to painting in his later years, his ambition was to depict the history and landscape of the region he knew so well. Curator Holger Cahill encountered Pickett’s work in New Hope, and it was included in such MoMA exhibitions as American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900 (1932) and Masters of Popular Painting (1938). Pickett’s aesthetic was a natural fit for the Whitney’s founding collection in 1931, since the museum’s first director, Juliana Force, also had roots in Bucks County and a special interest in folk art.

Without formal training, Pickett improvised his materials and technique. He achieved textural effects approximating the objects he depicted by mixing house paint with sand, shell, and other gritty substances. Working slowly, he would spend years on each canvas (only four finished compositions are extant) and build up his surfaces in thick applications of paint. Despite the sculptural outer layer, which sometimes measured nearly a half-inch thick, the world represented by Pickett appears flat for its lack of shading. In works like MoMA’s Manchester Valley (1914–1918?), Pickett recognized the importance of the area as a transportation hub between Philadelphia and New York City, using a steam locomotive to divide two wooded landscapes with different spatial systems.

New Hope, formerly known as Coryell’s Ferry for the ferry crossing the river here, was also famous for its proximity to the point where George Washington crossed the Delaware from Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. In Coryell’s Ferry, 1776 Pickett shows Washington standing on a hill at the upper right, pointing his telescope toward cascading waters (liquid made solid by Pickett’s heavy white paint). Though Washington is improbably tall—nearly the height of the surrounding trees—this is no heroic portrait of the man. Compared with Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), Pickett concentrates on a quiet moment between battles.


Kara Fiedorek


Cahill, Holger, et al. Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1938.

Janis, Sidney. They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century. New York: The Dial Press, 1942.