Artist Jean Wertz, 51, bends over a canvas inside her Lebanon, Pa., studio, skillfully guiding her brush to re-create Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Of course, Wertz’s version of the 19th-century masterpiece excites not just the eyes, but the sense of smell as well. Instead of working with oil-based paints, Wertz uses chocolate that’s colored with food coloring and thinned with lemon juice and vodka to offer lighter tones and shades. Her canvas is white chocolate that she’s handcrafted to look like fabric.
“I enjoy creating paintings on chocolate because it is unlike any other medium I’ve ever worked with,” Wertz says. “I am learning and experimenting all the time because I’m creating my own aesthetic. Food coloring on chocolate is very forgiving. If I make a mistake I can simply wipe it away with a paper towel or eat it!”
Although Wertz grew up around chocolate at the Wertz Candy Co., founded by her grandfather in 1931, she didn’t see candy in her future.
“I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was 6 years old,” she says. “I didn’t get super serious until I went to art school.”
Following her 1979 graduation from Kutztown (Pa.) University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art education, Wertz unexpectedly took a full-time job at her family’s candy business after the candy coater suddenly quit. She didn’t accomplish much with chocolate other than dipping and dunking until 1989, when she attended a food trade show and noticed some paintings made of chocolate. Convinced she could do better, she dipped her brush in chocolate and began creating her own edible art.
In the mid-1990s, Wertz attended a workshop and learned to sculpt three-dimensional objects in chocolate. Her first pieces—bird’s nests and a book—were the beginning of her career as a professional chocolate artist.
In a small glass case at Wertz Candy, which now is owned by Jean and her three brothers, a handful of her artful chocolate creations are on display. Inside the case, miniature reproductions of masterpieces are perched on tiny easels adjacent to a pair of edible, ruby red slippers, reminiscent of those worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
“Inspiration comes in the most unlikely places—antique malls, catalogs, everywhere,” Wertz says. “And when I’m working on a reproduction of a famous painting, I try to honor the painter I’m trying to reproduce.”
Liz Sudheimer, former communications manager for the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, stumbled upon Wertz’s chocolate paintings by accident in 2002. “I was looking for a catchy way to announce the van Gogh: Fields exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art. I started looking online, and in my search, I found Jean’s paintings. They were so unique and yet very much perfect copies. Being chocolate, Jean’s paintings showed art in another medium.”
Wertz provided 37 commissioned chocolate paintings, such as van Gogh’s Wheat Stacks With Reaper and Thomas Cole’s The Architect’s Dream.
“Jean came to Toledo to be part of the opening exhibition and demonstrated her painting,” Sudheimer says. “Jean and her paintings were a true hit, and several were sold at the museum store. People still talk about her work.”
Wertz’s creations can take from a day and a half to several days to complete, and the cost can run from $25 to more than $2,000 for elaborate pieces.
Although Wertz’s paintings are edible, including the chocolate frames, she advises consumption be limited to the eyes. She suggests using small easels to display the miniature paintings and storing them at 68 degrees or cooler to prevent melting.
“One of my customers has had her Mona Lisa for nine years,” Wertz says. “One thing is for sure; no one has seen or smelled a work of art like this before.”