William J. McCloskey Born: 1859, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America Died: 1941, Orange, California, United States of America. A painter of still-lifes, portraits, and genre scenes (portrayals of everyday life), William J. McCloskey was an important figure in California’s early art scene who is best known for exquisitely painted images of oranges and other fruit. McCloskey was a native of Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under history painter Christian Schussele (1824–1879) and Thomas Eakins, a master of realism and exacting technique. His early attraction to still-life painting may reflect the influence of the Peale family of painters, still-life masters who had dominated the art world Philadelphia earlier in the century. In 1882, shortly after completing his studies, McCloskey took up a teaching position in Denver, Colorado, where he met Alberta Binford (1855–1911), a talented artist in her own right. The two married in 1883 and the following year moved to Los Angeles. Apparently already successful and prominent artists in the West, the McCloskeys quickly became mainstays of the young city’s burgeoning art scene.
Notwithstanding their success in California, the McCloskeys moved to New York, the nation’s art capital, in late 1885 or early 1886. In the five years that followed, they developed their specialization in fruit and floral still-life painting. Working both separately and collaboratively, they typically painted objects casually arranged and dramatically lit on polished mahogany tabletops with rich, dark drapery backgrounds. Alberta painted more exotic and visually varied fruits and took up floral painting, while her husband focused on globular fruit such as apples and oranges, typically showing them partly emerging from crisp wrapping. Both painted the produce of individual species with a high degree of accuracy and specificity, often reflected in their titles. Their highly finished works belong in a then contemporary American trend in still-life painting known as trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”), characterized by a perfect illusionism. In New York, the McCloskeys also began painting somewhat sentimental genre scenes, often posing their daughter for photographs from which they painted, in the manner of William’s teacher Eakins. They continued the lucrative practice of portraiture they had begun in California, and made illustrations for popular lithographic prints and other publications.
Throughout their joint and separate careers, the McCloskeys were extremely mobile, traveling throughout the United States and Europe to fulfill portrait commissions and to exhibit and promote their work. They spent periods of time in San Francisco, London, Paris, Salt Lake City, and New York, in addition to Los Angeles. When the couple separated in 1898, William remained in California, moving to Oregon in the mid-1920s. In the latter part of his career, he saw his traditional technique and style become outmoded. Both McCloskeys were relatively forgotten until 1996, when a major retrospective at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California, a repository for many of their works, reintroduced their once-celebrated art.