Justin McCarthy’s life has the peculiar twists of a riches-to-rags-to-recognition story. Unfailing in his belief that he was a talented painter, his work was neither understood nor appreciated until 40 years after he started creating it.
Born to a wealthy family in Weatherly, Pennsylvania, tragedy suddenly struck the family in 1908 with the death of his father, which left the family in financial ruin. Mrs. McCarthy turned to teaching to support herself and her teenage son as they continued to live in the family home. Justin helped generate income by cultivating the estate’s gardens and orchards to sell fruits and vegetables at local markets.
Not giving up on a future for her son, Floretta McCarthy saved enough money to send Justin to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He passed his first year exams in 1911, but in his second year he had a nervous breakdown. In 1915, he was admitted to Rittersville State Hospital for the Insane and remained there for the next five years.
During this time McCarthy began to create art. He would later say, when describing the delusional state in which he spent most of this period in his life that, “I forgot who I was.” While hospitalized, McCarthy began to draw, often signing his works with names like “Prince Dashing” or “Gaston Deauville.” He only showed his early work to his mother, who continued to be encouraging and supportive.
McCarthy’s mother died in 1940, but he continued to live in their home, earning money by selling a variety of produce and even liniment. He tried his hand at a number of jobs: working in a warehouse, at a cement company carrying bags of cement, and as a chocolate mixer. During World War II, he worked at Bethlehem Steel as a machinist’s assistant, but was let go soon after the war. After 1950, his primary medium became oil paints. Rooms in the old mansion were closed off one by one as they became full of work and other items, until Justin was living in two rooms, heated by a kerosene stove, where he slept on a cot. He occasionally exhibited his work at outdoor fairs, but went largely unnoticed until he was discovered at a local outdoor art show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, by watercolor artist Dorothy Strauser. She and her husband collected and promoted McCarthy’s work and remained his close friends until his death in 1977.