black and white photo of a young Wharton sitting on the back of a sailboat, and facing the viewer. His brothers are also on the boat, which is moving away from us.

Wharton Esherick and his brothers, Barnegat Bay, NJ c.1905.


As vacationers of all stripes steal off to the Jersey Shore this time of year hoping to seize a few last days of carefree summer fun, we’re excited to highlight Esherick’s own special connection to the New Jersey coastline. Captured in numerous woodcut prints, sketches, and watercolors — and in the furnishing of the Studio itself — the Jersey Shore and Esherick’s experiences there left a lasting impact on his artistic voice. 

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Esherick’s family was like many others who have made their way to the Shore for generations. Esherick and his brothers taught themselves to sail at Longport and later he would return with friends to Barnegat Bay. After high school, Esherick also traveled to Europe by cattle boat, working for his passage. When he married Leticia Nofer in 1912, what was the honeymoon? A three-week cruise around the New Jersey shoreline and up the Hudson River on a borrowed motor sailer. The open water had clearly captured Esherick’s heart.



woodcut map of barnegat bay, green ink in red paper with notes, arrows and sketches drawn around the border

Wharton Esherick, Map showing Good Old Barnegat Bay and the Happy Ports for great sloop “Kitnkat”, Woodcut, 1925.


What was Wharton up to at the Shore? In addition to sailing, his notes and sketches from various trips mention crabbing, swimming, and sunbathing. In one particularly charming woodcut print, Esherick depicts a map of Barnegat Bay with a bright sun, train tracks, sailboat, happy whale, and lighthouse all represented. After a trip to the area with friends, including famed American author Theodore Dreiser, Esherick annotated the print to create a journal of their adventures. Handwritten notes mention getting “a mess of oysters in a sunken boat” or running “like children, barefoot” through “the sands warm and soft.” Many times, Esherick was sketching on these trips. Subjects that captured him included the landscape, fishermen, and sights that tourists still flock to today like the Barnegat Lighthouse. Esherick’s lighthearted humor also appears in these Shore sketches; in Henry Crabbing, artist and close friend Henry Varnum Poor is having a bit of an adventure of his own!

two drawings: one landscape sketch of a grassy beach dune looking out towards the water, the other of a lighthouse with hatching marks throughout the sky.

Left: Wharton Esherick, Cedar Creek L.S.S. Barnegat, pencil on paper, 1927. Right: Wharton Esherick, Lighthouse at Barnegat, pencil on paper, undated.


cartoonish drawing in the upper left corner of a paper depicting the front of a rowboat where someone has just fallen overboard. Legs and net stick up in the air and a couple crabs dot the water and boat floor.

Wharton Esherck, Henry Crabbing, pencil and crayon on paper, c.1920.


Back on land, much could be made of the influence of boat design on Esherick’s approach to furniture making. Themes of sailing show up throughout the Studio in architectural touches including the wood lip around the kitchen shelves and counter, which resemble those found in boats, to Esherick’s swinging lamps with long wooden armatures reminiscent of a sailboat tiller. The pair in the Studio gallery, Port Swinging Light and Starboard Swinging Light, playfully reference the system boats use to safely navigate in and out of a harbor with one lamp sporting a red cord and the other, green.


two wood lampshades dangle from cords wrapped around wood armatures

Starboard Swinging Light and Port Swinging Light, English walnut, poplar, painted wire, c. 1960.


We can understand Esherick’s efficient use of space and beautiful curving woodwork as echoing signature aspects of boat interiors even though Esherick left us no treatise on boat design in furniture making! Rather, these influences were absorbed over a lifetime of experience, careful observation, and appreciation. 

If you’re headed to the Jersey Shore this weekend for one last hurrah of summer fun, be sure to take a look around for the sights and sounds that may have called to Esherick’s creative mind — or his sense of adventure! 


For more, view our Spotlight Talk: Barnegat Bay Map or read our past blog post, Setting Sail, by WEM Executive Director Julie Siglin.


Post written by Communications and Public Programs Director, Katie Wynne.

August 2021