J. D. Sorver
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.
Copyright ©2005 The Schwarz Gallery