George Washington Nicholson (1832-1912), American
“The Coming Storm”, undated
oil on board, 10 1/8 in. x 15 in.
(framed dimensions: 18 in. x 22 ½ in. x 3 ¼ in. deep)
Signed lower left: “G W Nicholson”
In this dramatic outdoor scene, the artist employs an effective device he used in numerous paintings – a brightly lit foreground contrasting with a dark and ominous background. There is a built-in tension as two women on the footbridge appear to be hurriedly engaged in some task, perhaps fetching water from the stream, as a threatening slate gray cloud mass moves in from the right. The darkness of the oncoming storm is accentuated by the brightly lit tree that is still catching sunlight through a break in the clouds. There is a lone bird in flight and the treetops almost seem to sway in the wind. In the near distance, the shelter of a farmhouse beckons, its smoking chimney hinting at a warm place to ride out the storm. In a swirling field of greens, the red, yellow and blue color notes of the women’s clothing attract the viewer’s attention. The painting is executed by an artist who is obviously quite confident and secure in his technique. It is a very painterly surface and does not get lost in too much detail, managing to convey a realistic yet impressionistic landscape. The scene could be his home state of New Jersey or could just as easily be the English countryside.
George Washington Nicholson was born in 1832 in southern New Jersey. His first exposure to painting may have been as an apprentice to a Salem, New Jersey house painter when he was 17. He may also have apprenticed as a sign painter with his future father-in-law. Nicholson moved to Philadelphia and by 1862 was listed in city directories as an “artist”. He taught art classes in Philadelphia and may have continued his own studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1865 he was elected an Associate Artist of the PAFA, the voting members being a distinguished group of American painters. As was customary, Nicholson also traveled overseas for additional training in England, France and possibly other countries such as Germany, Italy, Holland and Egypt. It was in Paris that he found his most important mentor, Eugene Isabey.
The artist’s style of academic or romantic realism was popular with his American patrons. His paintings depicted both realistic scenes close to home as well as foreign subjects inspired by his travels, especially to England and France. He usually signed his paintings but rarely dated them. He reused his subjects and compositions, relying on his own paintings and sketches along with possibly prints and photographs. Country scenes with houses, a few figures, dramatic skies, occasionally snow recur in his work and he was fond of including figures dressed in yellow and red, as we see in this work, to add a dash of color and to create a focal point.
Nicholson exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal (1870), the Union League Club in Philadelphia (1873), the National Academy of Design (1874), the Brooklyn Art Association (1875, 1876), the Detroit Art Association (1875, 1876), the Chicago Academy of Design (1876) and the American Art Society in Philadelphia (1902). He also exhibited at a multitude of agricultural and industrial fairs. As Nicholson’s career peaked in the 1880s and 1890s, the artist was commissioned to paint a number of large murals, such as the “The Old Homestead” for Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, and “Washington Crossing the Delaware” for the State House in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
While Nicholson was aware of newer styles such as Impressionism, he did not give himself over to it but he may have been somewhat influenced in his brushwork and color key. As he said himself: “I do not go to one extreme or the other, and that, I imagine, is why my pictures please the majority”. The artist’s patrons included a variety of well to do individuals including judges, lawyers, doctors and businessmen.
In his personal life, Nicholson married Jane Elizabeth Bray in 1861 but lost her in 1863 due to complications following the birth of their only child, George F. Nicholson. The artist’s mother-in-law, also a widow, helped Nicholson care for the child. He spent most of his career in Philadelphia and managed to support his small family with his art. Nicholson was described by those who knew him as being a dignified and reserved man who kept to himself and worked in his studio almost daily. He was friends with some notable American artists such as John Singer Sargent and Franklin Dullin Briscoe. About 1902, he retired to Hammonton, New Jersey, where his son lived, and it was there he passed away in 1912 at the age of 80.
The painting is in excellent condition. There is no evidence of craquelure or inpainting. The frame is a fine quality reproduction of a 19th century Hudson River School type frame. It is a gilt composition fluted cove frame featuring nature inspired elements. The fluted cove adds depth to the painting. The frame weighs a bit more than other frames with the total weight of the painting and frame about 9 pounds. It is likewise in excellent condition.
George Washington Nicholson, oil painting on board, "The Coming Storm", late 19th century