Master Paper-Wrapped Citrus Still Life Painters
William J. & Alberta Binford McCloskey
William J. McCloskey (American, 1859-1941) was an American nineteenth-century painter made famous originally for his portraits. He and his wife, Alberta Binford McCloskey took the Los Angeles art world by storm in the mid-1880s with William’s portraits and Alberta’s still lifes. They painted together as a team for 15 years across the United States, London, and Paris.
After conquering L.A., in 1886 the pair moved to New York where, in addition to his portraits, William began painting still lifes alongside Alberta. His first paper-wrapped citrus painting came to exhibition in the spring of 1888 and it is William’s work from this time period that the art world is most familiar with today.
Both William and Alberta’s paper-wrapped citrus pieces are so striking because of their use of color and “trompe l’oeil” (a technique of realistically painting objects so that viewers might be fooled into thinking they were real). The realistic depiction of brightly lit citrus fruit combined with plush dark backgrounds and highly polished dark wood surfaces is one reason William’s paper-wrapped citrus works are so desirable.
Oranges were still a rare commodity on the east coast since they had to travel there from warmer climates and tissue paper wrapping was introduced in the late 19th century to protect the fruit from bruising and decay while being transported in wooden boxes. Given their rarity, oranges were often given as gifts with their packaging paper doubling as gift wrap. The earliest wrappers from this time period were plain and either white, yellow, pink or blue in color. Later, at the turn of the 20th century, retail fruit producers added printed information such as growers’ company names and where they came from, as well as logos and illustrations.
Like any successful still life artist, the McCloskeys would have studied the trends in art and chosen their subject matter carefully. The uniqueness of the paper-wrapped citrus, highlighting both the beauty of crinkled paper and vibrant colors of oranges and lemons, must have been a strong seller given how often the artist revisited the subject and they were definitely unique but not entirely exclusive.
There was one other 19th-century American artist named Lemuel Everett Wilmarth (1833-1918) whose still lifes incorporated paper-wrapped citrus. Lemuel’s works, however, have a darker palette and are not quite as delicate. William’s defined, colorful still lifes are in contrast to Lemuel’s, whose works were more painterly, yet loose, and greatly influenced by the European 17th century still life style.
Up until the 1980s and 90s, when William’s pieces started fetching prices in the hundreds of thousands – Still Life of Tissue-Paper-Wrapped Oranges sold for $341,000 at auction in 1992, the McCloskey’s were almost completely forgotten to history. Since then his paper-wrapped citrus pieces have continued to be in high demand. Wrapped Lemons on a Table Top, sold in 2016 for $217,800 at auction achieving the highest price for the artist in over 5 years and the 7th highest overall out of only 25 that have sold at auction.
This Novemeber another work, Lemons, is coming to auction at Clars Auction Gallery with an estimate of $120,000-180,000.
For additional information on the lives of William and Alberta McCloskey check out the collection at the Bowers Museum of Santa Clara and the book Partners in Illusion – Alberta Binfold and William J. McCloskey published in 1996 by well-known art historian Nancy Dustin Wall Moure.