August 2017


George Anthony Morton

An Artist against All Odds

by Louis Torres

George Anthony Morton is an artist with a remarkable history. He taught himself to paint while incarcerated in a Federal prison, where he served nine years and six months, having pled guilty to a drug charge. "I decided to find a way, even while in prison, to develop my love of art" he says. As he further explains on his website, "I read and studied everything I could about the craft of art and artists. At the same time, I . . . also started creating portraits of people on the 'inside.' My growing reputation as a prison portraitist created a space within which I could study, grow, and stay out of trouble."

By chance, one of the things he read while in prison was "11 Artists to Watch in 2011," an article in the January 2011 issue of American Artist magazine. Among the painters featured was Jordan Sokol, the Academic Director of the Florence Academy of Art's U.S. branch in Jersey City, N.J. (For more in Aristos on this estimable art school, search above for "Florence Academy.")

On his release from prison in 2014, Morton became one of the U.S. branch's first seven students. It was while studying there that he was accepted into the highly regarded Copyist Program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (about which see "The Copyist's Copy" by teaching artist Laurie Murphy), where he engaged in the time-honored academic practice of learning to paint by copying work by the Old Masters. See him here (photo posted on Morton's website, March 8, 2017) copying Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (click on the image to view before reading about it!).

Last month, Morton traveled to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, to pursue an intensive six-week course at the Academy.

This inspiring story recently caught the attention of the New York Times--not one of its art critics, who look upon Classical Realist painters (if at all) with a jaundiced eye, but James Barron, a reporter and columnist on the paper's metropolitan staff--in an article aptly titled "Off to Italy to Study Painting: A Former Inmate's Journey."

As far as I can determine, the only Times critic to have even mentioned the Florence Academy is Ken Johnson (whom I cite in "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde," 227n59), in a brief review of an exhibition of its work at Hirschl & Adler in 2003. Noting that the Academy trains students in "old-master techniques," which he quipped was "not a bad idea," he added rather sardonically that, though "skillful enough . . . the show abounds in inertly composed still lifes, laughable allegories and preciously romantic self-portraits, most of them looking glazed by decades of exposure to tobacco smoke" ("'Realism Revisited: The Florence Academy of Art,'" Art in Review, New York Times, September 13, 2003).

Happily, such bias did not affect James Barron's appreciative account of Morton's commendable achievement.