Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on April 25, 2008 with the permission of the Noyes Museum of Art and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Noyes Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
From Cape May to Cairo
by Kate Nearpass Ogden
From the shores and marshes of New Jersey to glowing sunsets on the Mediterranean, the painter George Washington Nicholson specialized in the art of landscape. Born near the small town of Salem, New Jersey in 1832, this surprisingly cosmopolitan artist studied painting in Philadelphia and Paris. Nicholson sold his depictions of American and foreign subjects to a wealthy urban clientele in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The artist has received very little attention from scholars, although interest in his paintings has long existed among collectors and galleries. This is the first exhibition and catalogue devoted exclusively to his work. 
Although Nicholson spent most of his working career in Philadelphia, he maintained life-long ties to southern New Jersey. He was born into a Salem, New Jersey family whose roots in the area date back to the 1670s. After establishing himself as an artist in Philadelphia, he continued to visit family in southern New Jersey and to paint the shore and marshes of the Garden State. Nicholson retired to his native state around 1902, spending his final decade in the town of Hammonton.
The artist was a descendant of Samuel Nicholson, who came to America in 1675 with John Fenwick's colony of English Quakers. His paternal line also includes Abel Nicholson, one of Samuel's sons, who built a large brick house with his wife Mary in 1722. Still standing today, it is one of several important early brick houses in Elsinboro, New Jersey. Not far away are the Darken Nicholson house (1720) and the Samuel Nicholson house (1752).
George Washington Nicholson was the next-to-youngest of fourteen children born to Daniel and Mary Nicholson, ten of whom survived infancy. The future artist was named for the first American president as well as for an earlier child who had died young. Nicholson spent his childhood in Mannington Township near Salem. According to family tradition, the young man was encouraged in his artistic pursuits by his oldest sister, Rachel G. Nicholson. He was about 14 when his father died in 1846. By the age of 17 he was apprenticed to a Salem house painter by the name of Daniel Woodruff. 
Little is known of Nicholson's activities during the 1850s and he probably moved to Philadelphia during this decade. It seems likely he had begun painting, although only one canvas is thought to be from the 1850s: a portrait believed to represent his mother, Mary Chambers Nicholson, which has been included in the current exhibition. One of very few portraits attributed to the artist, it depicts an elderly woman in a lacy white bonnet and a black dress and shawl.
An intriguing early work is Mending the Nets, in which the artist explored the type of figural subject he would so often use as a focal point in his later landscapes; the scene even includes a glimpse of a beach. In contrast to this early work, Nicholson usually focused on the landscape and made the human component much smaller. The signature on this piece, "Geo. W. Nicholson," written in a vertical, upright hand, is also different from most of his later signatures. Those typically feature his initials and last name, "G. W. Nicholson," written in a strong backward slant.
The young man's decision to pursue a career in art may have been influenced by an older painter from Salem, George Washington Conarroe (1803-1882), who began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1829 and moved to Philadelphia around that time. Although Nicholson was born after Conarroe's departure from Salem, he would have known the older artist by reputation. A portrait painter, Conarroe was still active at the Pennsylvania Academy in the 1860s and may have helped introduce his younger Salem colleague to the Philadelphia art world.
The early 1860s were an eventful and formative period in the artist's life. After moving to Philadelphia he met a young woman named Jane Elizabeth Bray, known as Jennie, and married her in a Presbyterian ceremony on May 29, 1861. Nicholson may have met Jennie through her father, Job F. Bray, who had worked as a sign painter in Philadelphia for many years. It seems likely that Nicholson served as his apprentice. Bray had traveled to London for artistic training in 1850 and was listing himself as "artist" in city directories by 1857, but examples of his work are unknown today. The young couple lived with her parents at 281 South Fifth Street, Philadelphia. 
Nicholson's career was launched in earnest by 1862, the first year his name appeared in Philadelphia city directories with the designation "artist"; that same year he was also listed under "Painters -- Landscape," with a second address at 51 North Sixth Street (presumably his studio). By the early 1860s he was teaching art in Philadelphia, most likely in the form of private lessons. At least one younger painter, James Brade Sword, studied with him between 1861 and 1863. Many of Sword's landscapes and coastal scenes bear a strong resemblance to Nicholson's. Over the years, Nicholson is believed to have given painting lessons to the actor and amateur artist Joseph Jefferson, who became a good friend; to the photographer and artist A. N. Lindenmuth; to a businessman named Joseph Sorver; and to a newspaperman named Harrington Fitzgerald, who became something of an artist and patron of the arts. According to one source, Nicholson shared a studio with Jefferson and Sorver for a time; the latter, who made a specialty of painting chickens, may have inspired him to attempt the same subject. Two of Nicholson's chicken paintings are included in the present exhibition.
In September 1863, Jennie Nicholson gave birth to a son, George F. Nicholson, but died of complications following the birth. The artist's mother-in-law, a widow since June of that year, began caring for the infant and managing the artist's household. By the follow year they moved to 59 North Second Street. The artist's brother-in-law John Bray, an engraver ten years his junior, would also move in with them. 
Nicholson is thought to have studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the early to mid-1860s, but the Academy's records do not mention him as a student. Classes at this time were informal. Students attended evening classes "for Study of the Living Model and the Antique" (i.e., from live models and from the Academy's collection of plaster casts of ancient and Renaissance sculpture). Instructors were not present during every session; instead, they critiqued the students' drawings once a week. Nicholson may have received guidance from such artists as Christian Schussele and Peter F. Rothermel; according to one source, the former was critiquing students' drawings in 1860, while the latter was teaching painting in 1862. Nicholson could also have been influenced by the artists John Sartain and James R. Lambdin, who were involved in supervising art instruction at the Academy. All four of these artists preferred figural subjects, so their guidance would have focused on the human figure and general techniques and methods, rather than the art of landscape.
Nicholson may have attended classes at the Academy for the art world connections it might bring; if so, the move paid off. In 1865, he was elected an Associate Artist -- a professional member -- of the Pennsylvania Academy. The vote granting him Associate status was held on April 3, 1865, and the voting members included a distinguished group of Academicians: Thomas Moran, Edward Moran, James Hamilton, Christian Schussele, George C. Lambdin, John Sartain, Samuel Sartain, George W. Conarroe, George F. Bensell, and William E. Winner. These men were among the professional members who served on the Academy's board of directors, the exhibition committee, and the committee on instruction. There is no record that Nicholson ever achieved full Academician status himself.
Stylistically, the artist's work represents the brand of academic realism so popular in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century. This was the style taught at the art academies and exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the National Academy of Design in New York, and their counterparts in London, Paris, Munich, and elsewhere. As expressed by Nicholson and his peers in the Hudson River School, this style has also been called Romantic realism, a style blending realistic details with romanticized compositions and dramatic skies. It had a strong following among upper and upper-middle class patrons.
Although Academy instruction focused on the figure, some of the leading Philadelphia painters were landscape and marine specialists. A young artist living in a city populated by such painters as Thomas Moran, Edward Moran, and James Hamilton might well be drawn to such subjects himself. Nicholson's interest in landscape may have been further reinforced by the post-Civil War art market, in which quaint rural subjects would have held great nostalgic appeal to urban residents of Philadelphia.
Like many American artists of the day, Nicholson went abroad for additional training, visiting England, France, and perhaps other countries. His oldest sister, Rachel, is said to have assisted him with travel funds. Nicholson apparently traveled with a friend by the name of William Creagmile, who worked for his family's carpet business on North Second Street, not far from the artist's residence. The two young men, both in their thirties, witnessed each other's passport applications on March 6, 1866; after reaching London, the artist inscribed a book of sketches to his friend on June 4, 1866. This sketchbook confirms that he visited England that year. 
The artist's passport application described him as 5 feet 7 _ inches in height with brown hair, hazel eyes, oval face, broad forehead, straight nose, medium-sized mouth, square chin, and dark complexion. This description corresponds with a canvas depicting three portrait sketches believed to be self portraits. The portrait sketches in turn bear a strong resemblance to photographs of the artist taken later in life.
In Paris Nicholson found his most important mentor: Eugène Isabey (1803-1886), an official painter in the court of Emperor Napoleon III. Over the course of his career Isabey painted landscapes, historical subjects, and a variety of narrative images including "genre subjects" -- scenes of everyday life, usually involving the working class. He was a major influence on the young American, both in style and choice of subjects. Storms at sea and coastal shipwrecks are among the subjects they both preferred.
Nicholson's creative process is visible in a small canvas, Shrimpers, which depicts boys on a rocky coast. The rocks in the top right show that the artist followed Academy practice, first sketching his subject in pencil and gradually filling it in with color. His canvases occasionally depict realistic local scenes; more often they focus on foreign subjects inspired by his teacher, Isabey, and his travels abroad. Nicholson's paintings, like those by his mentor, often include small figures involved in everyday activities. The artist was especially fond of including figures dressed in red and yellow to give his landscapes a focal point and a bit of color.
Nicholson's travels may have taken him to a variety of other countries in Europe and North Africa, but those excursions have been difficult to confirm. The artist's obituary, which was probably written by his son, mentions that he traveled to Egypt. Additional documentation of his travels appears in letters and a pair of sketchbooks, but the current location of these items is unknown. According to one source, the artist's letters mention his great delight in visiting England and France and make reference to other countries he visited. One of his sketchbooks contains drawings of England, Scotland, Holland, Italy, and Egypt; the other contains drawings of the Isle of Jersey, France, Holland, Norway, Italy, and Egypt. Photographic copies made from the first sketchbook can be seen at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, but there is nothing about them that confirms the sketches were made on-site, "from nature."
When the artist returned to America he made his residence at 1127 Division Street, some distance northwest of Center City. Four of his canvases were included in a sale of paintings at Jacob Graff and Company in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1866. The following year, 1867, was the first and only time he exhibited work at the Pennsylvania Academy: his entry in the exhibition was a canvas entitled Sketch from Nature, Looking Towards Windsor Castle.  At that time the painting was owned by Joseph Johns, a friend, fellow artist, and curator at the Pennsylvania Academy. According to family tradition, Nicholson was unhappy with his painting's placement in the exhibition and decided not to exhibit at the Academy again. It is also possible he was dismayed by the lack of coverage he received in the press.
Some of the artist's earliest dated foreign canvases include Bird Seller in a Street of Cairo (in the current exhibition) and Coast of Algiers (location unknown), both of which were painted in 1866. Another early work is an English-style landscape titled Day's End, which is dated either 1862 or 1872. A beautiful canvas of moderate size, it shows remarkable self-assurance for a young artist. Day's End is similar in subject and composition to another painting, privately owned, that also depicts an English-style landscape with figures in the foreground and two tall structures -- a Norman cathedral or castle and a Gothic church -- in the distance. It is tempting to identify one of these canvases as Sketch from Nature, Looking Towards Windsor Castle, which the artist exhibited in 1867.
A very private individual, Nicholson seldom participated in artists' organizations of the day. Perhaps his "low profile" is one of the reasons he was omitted from nineteenth-century histories of Philadelphia art like the one in Scharf and Westcott's History of Philadelphia (1884) and John Sartain's Reminiscences (1899). Not surprisingly, he lacked the connections and wealth to appear in the Red Book or the Social Register.
Although not a member of any artists' societies or groups, Nicholson nevertheless had friends in artistic circles. The painters Frank D. Briscoe and Joseph Johns were close friends, as was an artist named Smith (perhaps Russell Smith), a painter of theatrical scenery. Later in the century Nicholson was also friendly with the art dealer Charles F. Haseltine, who exhibited his work, and with J. Thorp Flaherty, a restorer for Haseltine Art Galleries. In the 1860s, Charles Haseltine had been active in the Philadelphia Sketch Club, but Nicholson never became a member. He knew the leading American society painter John Singer Sargent, who painted his portrait (a work that is unlocated today). He is also said to have been a friend of Walt Whitman and may have met the Camden poet through a mutual friend, the lawyer Thomas Corwin Donaldson.
During the 1870s Nicholson worked hard to establish his career as an artist. He exhibited at The Union League Club in Philadelphia at least once (1873). He also sent canvases to exhibitions at the National Academy of Design (1874) and the Brooklyn Art Association (1875, 1876), perhaps to solidify his credentials or in hopes of expanding his market to the New York area. At the National Academy he exhibited Etretat on the Coast of France; at Brooklyn he was represented by Dieppe, on the English Channel and Misty Morning, Coast of France. While establishing himself as an artist, Nicholson supplemented his income with engraving, a trade he may have learned from his brother-in-law John Bray. 
Nicholson may have hesitated to compete in the high-profile art world of New York City, but he exhibited actively in a variety of regional venues. He sent paintings to exhibitions at the Art Association of Montreal (1870), the Detroit Art Association (1875-76), and the Chicago Academy of Design (1876). He was an associate member of the Northwest Gallery of American Art (possibly located in Chicago). Nicholson also exhibited at a variety of agricultural and industrial fairs; these venues provided much-needed exhibition opportunities in the country's regional centers. His paintings were shown at the Agricultural and Mechanical Association, St. Louis (1870); the St. Louis Mercantile Library (1871, 1872); the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition (1872); the Chicago Interstate Industrial Exposition (1874, 1876); and the Louisville Industrial Exposition (1875, 1877, 1880). His sophisticated foreign scenes appealed to the businessmen and industrialists in these cities.
The peak of Nicholson's career extended from the mid-1880s through the 1890s. Around 1885 he painted several successful large canvases involving figures. One of his largest commissions was a seven-by-fourteen foot mural titled The Old Homestead, which was finished in March 1892 and placed on display at the original Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia. A smaller version of The Old Homestead was used in a very different sort of commission: It was reproduced on the label of Canavan's Old Homestead Rye Whiskey. The large mural was still at Wanamaker's Chestnut Street store in 1950, although its current location is unknown; the smaller version was sold at Christie's in 1993 and is now in a private collection. 
Figures were more important in The Old Homestead than in most of Nicholson's paintings. A critic for The Philadelphia Press reviewed the mural favorably, commenting that "The subject is excellently treated and one can almost imagine that the figures are real, so true are the colorings and so life-like." Another writer complimented Nicholson on its "general effect, perspective and composition." The commission may have resulted from connections among his clientele, as John Wanamaker's mother-in-law was a member of the Deshong family and Alfred O. Deshong was a major patron of the artist's work.
Another mural, Washington Crossing the Delaware, was painted for the Pennsylvania State House in Harrisburg. In choosing this topic Nicholson may have been inspired by the more famous canvas painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). With life-sized figures, the mural must have been quite large. Its whereabouts are unknown today and it was probably lost when the old State House burned in 1897. After retiring to New Jersey in 1902, the artist would work on another public commission for several large murals depicting Washington's Winter at Valley Forge. Although at least one mural was apparently completed, its location is unknown today. 
An occasional painting indicates that Nicholson was aware of newer styles, such as Barbizon and Impressionist painting, then being imported from Europe. Still Life with Watermelon, dated 1881, is more painterly and less detailed than many of his canvases; its dark palette suggests the influence of the Barbizon or Munich schools. Barbizon painting acquired a following in Philadelphia as well as other American cities. Marshes, Cape May (p.10), which is broadly painted but lighter in color, gives a sense of being sketched en plein air, or outdoors, in the manner of the French Impressionists. By the 1880s, these imported styles were becoming popular in America, leading to a decline in the once-dominant Hudson River School mode.
Despite a few loosely painted canvases, Nicholson expressed displeasure with the more painterly styles imported from Europe. In December 1891, a Philadelphia critic quoted the artist as saying, "I do not admire trifling work . . . . I do not believe in being obliged to stand half a square off to obtain the effect of a picture. I do not go to one extreme or the other, and that, I imagine, is why my pictures please the majority." The same writer noted that "Mr. Nicholson's manner [has] not the exaggerated breadth which has been adopted to an extreme so often in the French School." 
The period from about 1876 to 1914, often called the "American Renaissance," was a time of increased cosmopolitanism in American painting, interior design, and collecting trends. Nicholson's European subjects and manner would have appealed to an upper-class clientele with a taste for cosmopolitan subject matter realistically depicted. A talented artist but never a member of the avant-garde, Nicholson was well matched with his chosen city. Although Philadelphia had long-standing cultural traditions, it was considered somewhat stodgy by the mid-nineteenth century. It was also an inhospitable city for an artistic career; Thomas Sully, who painted portraits there for most of his life, complained that Philadelphia was "a sad place for artists." By mid-century, New York -- home of the Hudson River School -- had pulled into the lead as capital of the American art world.
Nicholson's patrons included a variety of well-to-do individuals such as judges, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Among his most notable clients were Henry Billings Brown, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Alexander Mitchell of Milwaukee, called the "millionaire railroad king of the west." William M. Bunn, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and governor of the Idaho Territory from 1884 to 1885, owned two paintings: a "Rural Landscape" and a "Mountain Landscape." Thomas B. Carroll, a member of the New York state senate, owned an "Italian Landscape" and a "Scene in Holland." Other paintings were purchased by George DeBenneville Keim, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and James McCormick, a businessman and member of a prominent central Pennsylvania family. Thomas Corwin Donaldson, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and collector, was both friend and patron.
Nicholson's most supportive patron was Alfred O. Deshong, a businessman from Chester, Pennsylvania, who regularly purchased his work. A philanthropist who supported Chester Hospital and Pennsylvania Military College (the predecessor of Widener University), Alfred Deshong and his brother John operated the Deshong stone quarries near Chester. The core of the current exhibition consists of the paintings bequeathed by Deshong to the Widener University Art Gallery and Collection.
Nicholson usually signed his paintings; he seldom dated them, however, so forming a precise chronology is difficult. Throughout his career he alternated foreign landscapes with occasional American scenes and literary subjects. Among the few dated paintings of the 1860s are such varied canvases as Day's End (1862-72), Bird Seller in a Street of Cairo (1866), Coast of Algiers (1866), and Looking Towards Windsor Castle (1867). In the 1870s, mundane titles like New Jersey Landscape with Cows (1876) alternate with more exotic ones like Aladdin's Palace, Arabian Nights (1877). This dichotomy continues in later years with everyday titles such as Wintry Landscape with Figures (1885) contrasting with foreign subjects like Moroccan Landscape (1891).
Establishing dates for the paintings is further complicated by the fact that many of Nicholson's canvases follow compositional formulas he repeated throughout his career. The artist continuously recycled his subjects and compositions, drawing on memories, on-site sketches, and his own earlier paintings; he may also have utilized paintings and prints by Isabey as well as other prints and photographs. This recycling was standard practice among nineteenth-century painters; examples can be found in the work of such well-known artists as the Americans Asher B. Durand and Albert Bierstadt and the French painters Eugène Delacroix and Claude Monet.
Certain formulas crop up frequently in Nicholson's work. Country scenes with snow, houses, and a few figures are especially common, appearing so often it seems possible they were inspired by the artist's memories of his native Salem County. A painting of children building a snowman (included in the current exhibition) is an unusual variation on Nicholson's usual snow scenes. The centennial of 1876, which was celebrated with much fanfare in Philadelphia, may have been an influence on the artist's interest in rural American themes; the ubiquitous prints of Currier and Ives are another likely influence. Among the subjects to which Nicholson frequently returned were figures and boats at the shore, stormy seascapes, English and European village scenes, and figures dressed in Arab garb in street or market settings.
Nicholson's early trip abroad apparently provided an unending source of subjects for his brush. The artist's stay in England resulted in such paintings as Sunday Morning in Surrey and English Town Scene (both in the present exhibition). The artist's Dutch landscapes include Canal in Holland, Winter; Dutch Landscape with Figures; Night, Rotterdam; and Landscape with Windmill (in the exhibition). His French subjects include Etretat on the Coast of France, Dieppe, Mont St. Michel, St-Germain-des-Pres, and By the Sea, Brittany.
Among the artist's Italian landscapes are La Campagna, Southern Italy, and Outdoor Market in Florence. North African subjects also appear throughout his oeuvre. One early canvas, Coast of Algiers, was painted in 1866; a later work, Moroccan Landscape, is from 1891. A canvas titled simply African Scene was owned by the United States Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. A few paintings suggest that Nicholson may have traveled to the Bahamas and the American Southwest, although he could as easily have worked from prints or photographs. Both locations were becoming popular destinations for American artists in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
Although historical subjects were never his forte, Nicholson incorporated historical events into a few of his landscapes. An Uprising in North Africa and Military Skirmish are two examples; the latter canvas depicts the Great Sphinx of Egypt, located conspicuously in the background, while a battle rages in front. More to the artist's taste was the vogue for literary subjects established earlier in the century by Washington Allston, Thomas Cole, and others. An example in the current exhibition is Robinson Crusoe (1880), which depicts the fictional character in his cave, surrounded by items salvaged from the shipwreck. Robinson Crusoe appears in at least four Nicholson canvases and one known charcoal drawing. Other literary subjects include Don Quixote Meeting his Attack and Aladdin's Palace, Arabian Nights.
Nicholson's foreign landscapes seem more sophisticated than his fresher, more immediate New Jersey shore and marsh scenes. They have the "manner" that American artists recognized as a style best learned abroad. As Nicholson's contemporary, the landscape painter Gilbert Munger, noted, "It is in Europe rather than in America that the indefinable and singular charm in painting which men call style is most readily attained." To modern viewers, this European manner may seem somewhat artificial or stylized.
New Jersey subjects are of special interest in the current exhibition. Barnegat Light and Long Bar, Barnegat portray specific, identifiable locations. The artist painted at least two versions of Barnegat Light. The canvas in the current exhibition was painted with such specificity -- with such care given to the details and measurements of the lighthouse and other buildings -- that it seems likely to have been created for a wealthy tourist or someone living nearby. A variant, now unlocated, had figures grouped at the base of the lighthouse and a horse-drawn carriage at the right, as well as bathers and groups of people on the beach. 
Several landscapes depict less specific beach and marsh locations. Marshes, Cape May is a beautiful example of a local subject; almost Impressionistic in color and handling, it includes generic small figures that could be American or European. A related oil painting on paper is more detailed in handling despite being smaller in size (p.10). Landscape with Inlet (Widener University) is also more finished in appearance; this canvas depicts boys in a marsh with a shallow boat -- perhaps an example of a New Jersey "sneak-box boat" or "sneak boat." Similar boats are found in other marsh scenes by Nicholson.
As a resident of Philadelphia, home to some of America's finest marine painters, it is no surprise that Nicholson painted a number of impressive marine subjects, including coastal landscapes as well as boats at sea. The Wreck (p.14; Woodmere Art Museum) and Storm at Sea (Widener University) are impressive examples in the current exhibition. The stormy skies and dramatic waves in such paintings place them firmly in the context of Romanticism. In the nineteenth century, the "storm-tossed boat" was a frequently-painted subject that came to serve as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of human existence.
Nicholson's interest in ships and shore aligns him with such notable Philadelphia painters as Thomas Birch, James Hamilton, Thomas and Edward Moran, and William Trost Richards. The artist's mentor, Eugène Isabey, was also partial to seascapes. Rather than focusing on the details of ship construction and rigging as earlier marine painters had, Nicholson's generation emphasized atmosphere and the mood of the scene. Their paintings are thus more Romantic and French in style, while earlier ship painters in America emulated English and Dutch models.
Nicholson's North African and Middle Eastern images are referred to as "Orientalist" subjects. In recent years, Orientalism -- a romanticized Western view of the Middle and Far East -- has come to seem derogatory and patronizing, taking the people of those locations out of their own cultural and historical context and treating them as exotic curiosities. It is seen as symptomatic of the attitudes underlying Western imperialism. In the nineteenth century, the appeal of these subjects lay primarily in their sensuous and exotic aspects. French artists like Delacroix, Gérôme, and Ingres were given free rein to paint imaginative images of harem girls, lion hunts, and Moorish architecture. Their images inspired a second generation of painters including Nicholson.
Although he never painted harem girls, Nicholson did depict Middle Eastern markets and street scenes populated by figures in Arab garb. In addition to Bird Seller in a Street of Cairo and A Moorish Bazaar Portal, his oeuvre includes such titles as Straits of the Bosphorus, Arabian Coastal Town, and Outskirts of an Arabian Village. The specificity of some titles suggests the artist may have sketched those locations on site; other canvases, titled more generically, may have been painted from memory or visual source material. Photographs of Orientalist subjects were widely available in London and Paris at the time of his visit, as were engravings of many foreign locations. Paintings by Isabey, the artist's mentor, could also have served as models for his work. Isabey had accompanied an expedition to Algiers in 1830, around the same time the more famous French painter Delacroix went there; both French artists produced many canvases based on their experiences in the Algerian capital.
Nicholson's most supportive patron, Alfred O. Deshong, shared his enthusiasm for Orientalist art and artifacts. According to one historian, "In his residence on Edgemont Avenue, Chester, [Deshong] gathered a collection of high grade paintings, ivory carvings, and old Japan bronzes, etc., which was known far and near for the superior character of the artists it contained." Deshong also acquired Chinese jade, Chinese cinnabar lacquer boxes, and Japanese cloisonné enameled vases. Another patron of the artist, William M. Bunn, likewise collected such exotic artifacts as Kaga bronze figures, Satsuma vases, Japanese carved ivory figures, Arabian daggers, and a variety of Indian and Middle Eastern carpets. It is thus logical that their collecting interests included Nicholson's work, especially in its more cosmopolitan and Orientalist aspects.
As an artist, Nicholson came of age at a time when American painters were increasingly passionate about the watercolor medium. Interest in the medium was so pronounced that the American Society of Painters in Water Color was founded in 1866 and watercolors were often included in serious exhibitions. Nicholson joined this vogue although his interest could also have been piqued by Isabey, his French mentor, who often used the medium. Nicholson would exhibit a watercolor titled Spring at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900; this would be one of his last long-distance loans.
Nicholson spent most of his working career in Philadelphia, where he was always listed in city directories with the designation "artist." He changed his place of residence every few years, a fact that suggests he was never wealthy. It seems he was able to support his small family with his art, however, and 1875 was the last year he appeared in city directories as an engraver. Recent research indicates that the artist moved to Camden around 1890, initially living on Erie Street and then settling for four years at 26_ York Street. During this period he continued to maintain a studio at 907 Arch Street in Philadelphia. The artist's mother-in-law, who kept house for him, died around this time, so he may have relocated to be near relatives. There was a growing number of Nicholsons living in Camden, some of them originally from his native Salem County.
Around 1895 Nicholson moved back to Philadelphia, where he opened a studio at 718 Sansom Street, above the jewelry shop of Joseph K. Davison. The Davison firm was a prestigious one; among other enterprises, they produced inaugural medals for presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. Nicholson became friendly with the Davisons and gave them many paintings, perhaps in lieu of rent on his studio. More than two dozen canvases were passed down through the family, although some have been sold in recent decades. Joseph K. Davison's paintings included some of the artist's most unusual works: an oil sketch of three faces (probably self portraits; p.5) and a genre subject featuring peasant girls at work (Kitchen Scene). Davison also owned two New Jersey landscapes by Nicholson -- Atlantic City and Delaware Water Gap (locations unknown) -- as well as an Algerian Scene that may be the painting titled Rebel Attack (North African Scene) in the current exhibition. While renting studio space from the Davisons, Nicholson maintained a residence at 2142 Hicks Street.
In 1902 Nicholson exhibited at the American Art Society in Philadelphia, where he received a gold medal for a painting titled Harvest Field in Berks County. Seventy years old at the time, he may have received the award in recognition of his long career in Philadelphia. Around this time he retired to Hammonton, New Jersey, where his son had moved some fifteen years earlier. He took with him Ella M. Garbrecht, a younger woman he had hired as live-in housekeeper a few years earlier. Garbrecht was later described as a "prim and proper woman" who was "driven to distraction" by the artist's habit of washing his brushes in the kitchen sink. Nicholson claimed her as his adopted daughter in the 1910 U.S. Census. By this time he had also taken in a nine-year-old boarder by the name of Walter Joseph Dietz, perhaps for additional income. 
Reports differ as to whether George F. Nicholson built his father's house at 879 Central Avenue, Hammonton or the house was purchased from the Elvins family. In either case, a room at one end of the living room was customized as a small studio with a large, round-topped northern window, and a large unfinished room or shed at the back of the house was turned into a studio for larger projects. Nicholson would have used this larger studio when working on a commission for several large murals depicting Washington's Winter at Valley Forge. The artist's house was torn down in the late 1990s for construction of a new housing development.
In his final decade, Nicholson was described as a "distinguished-looking, bearded man" who generously gave away many paintings to his friends. One friend of the artist, Mrs. Amy Whiffen, obtained thirteen beautifully finished charcoal drawings. Now unlocated, most of them depict rural landscapes with figures; one shows Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday (a favorite subject of the artist). Several paintings were also acquired by Nicholson's neighbors and friends, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Nicholai. The Nicholais acquired several small oil landscapes, a charcoal drawing of a sailboat, and a watercolor of a picturesque rural scene. A more unusual painting attributed to the artist is a portrait that was once owned by Elsie and William H. Parkhurst, executors of the younger Nicholson's estate. Some of those works are included in the current exhibition. 
The Nicholais' daughter, Mamie Vaughn, remembered the artist as a "dignified, reserved man who kept pretty much to himself, working in his studios almost daily." Apart from a few friends, the artist lived a solitary life; he never attended church and avoided most public gatherings. When not painting he wore a brown velvet smoking jack and carpet slippers at all times. Another acquaintance from Hammonton described him as "a bit humorous" with "a pleasant smile and kindly eyes." He was "of average height, though rather slender . . . a very modest and retiring gentleman, with a cheerful outlook on life." 
During his time in Hammonton, Nicholson is believed to have bartered paintings for groceries and to have paid his physician, Dr. Godfrey Miles Crowell, with artwork rather than cash. Dr. Crowell lived at 220 South Third Street, in a house that is still standing today. The doctor's family later found nearly twenty paintings in his house, some of them rolled up in the attic. Those works are still owned by members of the family. In addition to Bird Seller in a Street of Cairo, the doctor's descendants own a variety of foreign and American landscapes, many of them on paper rather than canvas.
Alfred O. Deshong, the artist's most devoted patron, continued to visit him at his Hammonton residence. A young friend of the artist later recalled that Deshong was impeccably dressed and always arrived "driven by a liveried chauffeur in a huge, luxurious limousine [with] . . . cut glass vases on either side of the rear seat, always filled with flowers." Nicholson, in turn, visited his patron in Chester, Pennsylvania. On one of those occasions he brought along his physician, Dr. Crowell, and the doctor's young daughter. Deshong later sent the girl an expensive doll as a memento of the visit. 
George Washington Nicholson lived in Hammonton until his death in 1912 at the age of 80. His son, George F., continued there as a florist and nurseryman for many years. After the younger Nicholson's death in 1945, the remainder of his father's paintings estimated by one source as numbering two hundred works were sold by a dealer in Haddonfield or Moorestown, New Jersey for a reported $500. Today his individual paintings are valued at many times that figure and his artistic legacy continues to bring us pleasure almost a century after his death. While my research has uncovered many details of the artist's life and the locations of much of his known work, many paintings await re-discovery in New Jersey and Philadelphia collections.
I am grateful to Rebecca M. Warda, Collections Manager, Widener University Art Gallery and Collection, whose willingness to lend their collection of twenty-one Nicholson paintings helped make this exhibition possible. Special thanks as well to the museums and private collectors who loaned artwork and provided information about the artist. Roy Pedersen of Pedersen Gallery, Lambertville, and W. Douglass Paschall, Curator of Collections at Woodmere Art Museum, were enormously helpful in locating paintings and information about the artist, respectively. Lillian C. Carrow, John R. Carrow, Barbara and John Watson, and William H. Parkhurst III also provided a great deal of information.
A special thanks to Charles Lounsbury, the great-great-nephew of the artist, who gave me access to the collection of research materials compiled by his sister, Jane Nicholson Lounsbury Murphy. Likewise, Ralph Palmieri and Michael Rechel graciously allowed me to peruse their extensive file of materials on Nicholson. Additional biographical materials were provided by Rebecca M. Warda, Widener University Art Gallery and Collection, and Beverly C. Stanley, Salem County Historical Society. Additional details were filled in by Ryan Grover, Biggs Museum of American Art, and Bert Denker, Winterthur Museum and Country Estate. Other sources of information have been credited in the endnotes. Special thanks to Gary D. Schenck for designing the catalogue.
CATALOGUE OF PAINTINGS IN THE EXHIBITION
About the author
Professor Kate Ogden is Associate Professor of Art History, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Pomona, NJ. Dr. Ogden is the author of the From Cape May to Cairo: The Work of George Washington Nicholson exhibition catalogue.
About the exhibition
The Noyes Museum of Art and Richard Stockton College of New Jersey present the exhibition From Cape May to Cairo: The Work of George Washington Nicholson opening April 22 and continuing through November 9, 2008 at the Noyes Museum in Oceanville, N.J. The exhibition, a collaborative effort between the Museum and the College's associate art history professor Kate Ogden, presents the first comprehensive retrospective of George Washington Nicholson's work ever assembled.
Known as a landscape painter, Nicholson (1832-1912) lived and worked in New Jersey and Philadelphia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work represents the type of academic realism popular in America and Europe during the turn of the century. This exhibition includes seascapes, New Jersey marsh paintings as well as Orientalist subjects and landscapes. He was born in Salem County in 1832, a descendant of Samuel Nicholson, an original Salem County settler, who came to America from England in the 1670s as part of John Fenwick's Quaker colony. The historic Nicholson House built in 1722 by Samuel Nicholson's son Abel is still one of most important early brick houses in Salem today.
After leaving Salem, George Nicholson was a student and then a professional member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He traveled abroad in 1866, visiting England and France and studying art with the French artist Eugene Isabey (1803-1886). One of his earliest paintings, titled Coast of Algiers is dated 1866. Another, a study from nature titled Looking Towards Windsor Coast was exhibited in 1867, after the artist returned to Philadelphia. Although he spent much of his professional life in Philadelphia, he continued to visit New Jersey and paint the marshes and shore. Around 1902, the artist retired to Hammonton, New Jersey where he lived until his death in 1912.
Nicholson's subjects were primarily landscapes. They often include figures and scenes of everyday life among the working classes, including an impressive number of boats and coastal landscapes. Some of his landscapes can be easily identified as realistic depictions of local sites, many others show European influence and may have been painted abroad or based on sketches made during his travels. An interesting subset of Nicholson's work focuses on exotic Middle Eastern and North African subjects. One of the most spectacular paintings in the exhibition, titled Moorish Bazaar Portal depicts a group of robed Middle Eastern figures clustered under a large horseshoe arch.
The exhibition features 54 pieces from public and private collections. The most comprehensive group of 20 paintings is on loan from the Widener University Art Gallery who obtained the Nicholson works from the Alfred O. Deshong estate. Other paintings in the exhibition are on loan from private collections including the families and friends of Philadelphia jeweler Joseph K. Davison and Hammonton doctor Godfrey Miles Crowell, who often received payment for services from Nicholson in the form of paintings. The artist so freely gave his paintings away, that Ogden believes there are many more in private collections throughout southern New Jersey.
(above: George Nicholson, Barnegat Light, c. 1880s, oil on canvas, 10 x 14 inches, private collection)
(above: George Nicholson, Scavenging on a Wreck, oil on canvas, 11 ? x 15 ? inches, Pedersen Gallery, Lambertville, NJ)
(above: George Nicholson, Landscape with Inlet, oil
on canvas, 11 ? x 15 ? inches, Alfred O. Deshong Collection, Widener University
Art Gallery & Collection)
To view additional images, please click here
Resource Library editor's note
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Karen DeRosa, Communications and Development Director, The Noyes Museum of Art, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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