Roy Pedersen likes to think he knows a few things about art, after 35 years in the business as an art dealer and gallery owner. And because his Pedersen Gallery is in New Jersey, he naturally got curious about his home state's own art.
"I began to wonder: Were there any New Jersey painters?" he says.
But when he started trying to research that question, Pedersen says he could find just two books ever printed on the subject - and both were long out of print.
Still, he kept looking and asking around, "And pretty soon I realized that there was an extraordinary wealth of New Jersey painting that had never been written about - or basically even seen since the painters died," he says.
That's why Pedersen decided to write his own book, "Jersey Shore Impressionists: The Fascination of Sun and Sea, 1880-1940." The coffee-table size book was published this year by Down The Shore Publishing, based in West Creek, in Ocean County. And the book also is the basis of an exhibit, with a similar title, at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton.
Assembling 60 years of New Jersey art history was no easy job, though, because there was historically so little attention ever paid to the subject.
"The Jersey Shore and fine art were two ideas that didn't seem to go together in people's minds," says Pedersen, who grew up going to the shore in Ocean County's Point Pleasant Beach and now lives and works in Lambertville, on the New Jersey shore of the Delaware River.
And when he started talking about his project with others in the art world, and his ongoing discovery of more quality painters who worked around the wet edges of New Jersey, "I think they thought it was just wishful thinking - or smoke and mirrors," he says. "About the only people who believed me were the families of the painters themselves."
So that's part of why it took Pedersen plenty of detective work - and about 15 years of asking and compiling and thinking and writing and editing - to finish his "Jersey Shore Impressionists."
But art fans with local roots should recognize many of the places and scenes in his book, if not necessarily the painters' names.
Take a painting called "Beach at Atlantic City," by Robert Henri, who would go on to become famous in the early 1900s as a leader of New York's "Ash Can" school of painters. But Henri grew up in Atlantic City - where his bar-owner father moved his family after the father shot a man to death in Nebraska - and Henri painted and taught extensively in Avalon well before he moved to New York, and after he studied art in France.
"His most beautiful Impressionist paintings were on the beach in Atlantic City," says Pedersen, who found the Henri title mentioned here in the Phoenix Art Museum, a few thousand miles west of Atlantic City's beaches.
Or take Thomas Anshutz, who studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and later taught there for 11 years. But after he went to Paris to work and study in 1892, when Anshutz returned to America the next year, he didn't go back to Philadelphia. He wrote to his brother that he could "see no better scheme than to go to Holly Beach, N.J., and turn out a lot of watercolor pictures of the seashore."
Holly Beach is better known today as Wildwood - although Anshutz apparently tried to make that old name better known by using it in the titles of many of his paintings.
Pedersen found that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis owned one of Anshutz' pictures, of children playing with a crab by a sailboat. He says it sold for about $250,000 after she died - although given its owner, people who saw the picture may have assumed it was painted on the shores of Cape Cod, not Cape May County.
"The idea that (the scene) was in New Jersey was a non-fact - it had no more significance than the socks (the painter) was wearing that day," as Pedersen puts it now.
Then there's Eakins himself, who is no doubt the patron saint of Philadelphia painters - it isn't every artist who gets a traffic circle named for him, as Eakins Oval is for this one, at the bottom of the famous steps of the city's iconic art museum. But Pedersen's research showed him Eakins was a lifelong visitor to Cumberland County's Bayshore area, on the Cohansey River near Fairton.
"I began to learn more and more about him, and found he spent a lot of his time in New Jersey, from the time he was a small boy," Pedersen says. "He spent every summer in South Jersey, and continued to visit that South Jersey home until his 70s. So I began to see how more of his paintings were in New Jersey, or were associated with New Jersey."
And all of that leads the author to suggest a local claim on Eakins' fame:
"He is Philadelphia's most famous painter," Pedersen says, "but there's a good argument that he's also New Jersey's most famous painter, because he spent a good deal of his career here."
His book also includes several paintings by Mildred Miller, who grew up loving summers in Atlantic City, and later spent years teaching and painting in Cape May County. "Jersey Shore Impressionists" features Miller works including "Cape May Harbor," "Board Walk" and "Pavilion Cape May."
Pedersen's focus on New Jersey art has been a hit at Princeton's Morven, the museum that was once New Jersey's official Governor's Mansion. Elizabeth Allan, Morven's curator, called "Jersey Shore Impressionists" a "blockbuster" - which is the main reason the museum extended it to run until Oct. 27. (It had been scheduled to finish this month.)
"Our attendance for the show this year is more than 2 1/2 times as many people as we had last year," she said.
"We had a group today from Point Pleasant, and they were saying, 'We know these places.'" Allan added. "This has been an under-researched area of art history, and the connections (Pedersen) has made - no one had done that before him."
The author has also given talks about his book in other places around the state, including last month at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts & Sciences, in Loveladies, where he drew another big crowd.
"There was a great turnout, and he was very well received," said Amy Carreno, the foundation's public-programs coordinator.
Pedersen has enjoyed sharing his education in New Jersey art through the book and show, and seeing this art open eyes - even the eyes of people who have lived in the state for years.
"They can see one of these pictures now as an example of great New Jersey painting," he says. "So that category is in people's minds in a way it never was before. ... That changes the way they see New Jersey and the landscape around them."
Through all his work and research and writing, Pedersen came up with lots of things he didn't expect to find. But in the end, he says he really found "two big surprises in this show: One is how great the painting is. And the second is that nobody has ever done this show before."
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
If You Go
The companion show to Pedersen's book runs through Oct. 27 at Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton St., Princeton. Museum hours 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday to Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission $6 for adults, $5 for students and seniors and free for kids 6 and younger. For more details, call 609-924-8144 or see morven.org