New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
J. D. Sorver
(dates unknown)
Chickens in a Barn
Oil on canvas, 32 × 28 inches
Signed and dated at lower left: “JD Sorver/1900”

Very little is known about J. D. Sorver. He exhibited a “Group of Chickens” at the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1888, where he listed his address as 147 North 5th Street in Philadelphia.1 He was probably the Joseph D. Sorver who was listed in the 1901 Haddonfield city directory as living on 24 East Main Street (now East Kings Highway). Sorver was related to the prominent cigar manufacturer Robert D. Sorver, also a resident of Haddonfield. J. D. Sorver evidently left the area; he is not buried in the family plot at the cemetery of the First Baptist Church of Haddonfield.

The genre of barnyard scenes peopled by hens and chicks originated in early Victorian England and was popularized in the United States by the British immigrant artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819–1905), who settled in New York in 1850.2 In 1866, nineteen thousand copies of a chromolithographic reproduction after one of Tait’s chicken pictures sold in less than a year. Such subjects were greatly admired in the Philadelphia area, where Mary Russell Smith (1842–1878) successfully devoted her entire career to painting them. At the end of the century Ben Austrian (1871–1921) began to specialize in the genre and was so successful that he was considered the “Landseer of Chickens,” a reference to the famous Victorian English animalier Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873).

The immense popularity of barnyard fowl scenes seems almost incomprehensible today, but it was probably related to the contemporary interest in trompe l’oeil still lifes, as critics often praised the skill with which artists rendered the chicks’ feathers. Fairly common scenes such as this one, with a hen surrounded by her chicks, probably symbolized maternal virtue. Sorver was clearly aware of this tradition and sought to emulate it.


1. WWWAM, vol. 3, p. 3110.

2. For Tait, see Warder H. Cadbury and Henry F. Marsh, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, Artist in the Adirondacks (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986); for a discussion of Ben Austrian’s chicken subjects, see Geoffrey D. Austrian, Ben Austrian, Artist (Laurys Station, Pa.: Garrigues House, 1997), pp. 33–40.

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