Collectors set their sights on American wildlife art

Americans’ love affair with wildlife art began before they were even Americans.

Sir Walter Raleigh, planning his first expedition to the new world, requested artist John White to accompany the trip as a vital crewmate and fellow history maker. If he could show all of England the wonderful and profitable beasts and flowers to be found in the New World, Raleigh knew future trips would be all but certain. Images of flora and fauna equaled fame and fortune.

White’s lifelike watercolored drawings of brown pelicans, land crabs and loggerhead turtles delivered beyond Raleigh’s wildest dreams. They are the start of a genre of art uniquely American in subject, artistry and political power. American wildlife art has inspired kings, presidents and the public to hunt, exploit and conserve the continent’s creatures.

In the last 20 years, American wildlife art has established itself as a legitimate genre in both antique and postmodern art. A genre that had been taken for granted for so long has come into its own as a form of art both respectible and politically powerful. On March 27 a single handcolored engraving after John James Audubon, arguably the biggest name in American wildlife art, sold for $105,000 by the Neal Auction Company. The sale was a follow up to the firm’s Nov. 21, 2009 sale of the Julius Bien reissue folio of Audubon’s The Birds of America, sold for $230,000.

duck decoys

Although Audubon’s name has become synonymous with American wildlife (he portrayed some 2,000 birds and hundreds of animals and plants), his work was built on nearly 200 years’ worth of his predecessors’ endeavors. The demand for wildlife art was solidified during the Age of Enlightenment, when collectors themselves funded expeditions for new discoveries.

“This was the age of discovery and enlightenment,” said David Wagner, author of the groundbreaking book American Wildlife Art (Marquand Books, 2008). “A time when big science was interested in collecting and collecting information: data, words, pictures and numbers.”

This pursuit sparked a tsunami of immigration that rushed to document all the unique living things to be found in the new world. Sadly, one price was to be paid by the creatures themselves, as in the case of the American passenger pigeon, of which Audubon himself marveled: “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.”

“The art certainly presented wildlife as a means to drive economic investment in the New World,” Wagner said. “And art did play a role in the demise in what had been.”

Wagner’s book documents for the first time the history and contemporary impact of American wildlife art. Its manuscript grew out of his 1992 PhD dissertation and its 395 pages represents but one-third of his total research on the topic. He shows that up until the 1850s, wildlife art had largely been something of a pursuit for the wealthy.

In the 1850s cheaper printing methods made the art accessible to the middle class. Wildlife art became less about scholarly illustration and more about depicting the average hunting camp. That’s when a 39-year-old New York publisher, Nathaniel Currier, hired his brother-in-law, James Ives, to launch a company advertised as “Print-Makers to the American People.” At first the Currier & Ives company focused on sporting and hunting art in subscription form. The hardscrabble life of the early American was easing and hunting and fishing took on less of an importance for survival than it did for sport and leisure.

In this era artists such as Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), William Ranney (1813-1857) and William Harnett (1848-1892) celebrated the outdoors as a resource to be relished.

One sculptor in particular, Edward Kemeys (1843-1907), has the distinction of being the first major figure in American wildlife art to be born in the United States. Kemeys found patrons for his sculptures of mountain lions for New York’s Central Park and the iconic lions guarding the entry to Chicago’s Art Institute.

By the dawn of the 20th century artist Carl Rungius (1869-1959) had begun honing a unique approach to depicting big game and sporting scenes. After Audubon, who was larger than life, no one emerged to take his place,” Wagner said. “There was a vacuum. Tait was hugely popular, as was Currier and Ives. With Rungius, his images had the subject of sportsmen but rendered from the prespective of an artist. America was just learning about Impressionism and Modernism. Rungius’ paintings were large and he used color to achieve his Impressionism. It was chunkier and used different types of color.”

The style of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a contemporary of Rungius, is steeped in Audubon’s scientific rendering with a mix of human-like emotions to his subjects. “His wood ducks almost smile at you in a folksy way. He wanted to know the inner self of the animal,” Wagner said.

Rungius’ and Fuertes’ work modernized American wildlife painting and established it as a legitimate profession. It also created a standard of excellence throughout the 20th century, according to Wagner.

The 20th century exploded with a proliferation of wildlife art. From the National Wildlife Federation to the Federal Duck Stamp Competition, the oversupply of limited edition collectible prints to car companies naming products after the Cougar, the Mustang and the Ram, wildlife art touches every aspect of our collective modern popular culture.

By the late 20th century, painter Robert Bateman had become America’s most influential living wildlife artist, Wagner said, because his aesthetic was purposefully integrated with ecological ideology and the enterprise of publishing. His painting Mossy Branches – Spotted Owl was released as a limited edition print in 1990 by Mill Pond Press. The edition of 4,500 prints sold out within a month of its release – during the height of an effort to preserve land in the Pacific Northwest to protect the endangered spotted owl.
What does the future of American wildlife art hold?

“I can make one prediction,” Wagner said. “New heroes will jump out and will become icons in their own right,” he said. “It won’t be a one-shot phenomenon. It’s going to be an artist with a whole body of work. Someone will come out and be the next James Audubon or Robert Bateman, someone with a signature style.”

Until then art aficionados, and the animals, will wait. ?

Further Reading

american wildlife artAmerican Wildlife Art, David J. Wagner, 395 pgs, $75, Marquand Books, 206-624-2030, wildlife artWildlife in American Art: Masterworks from the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Adam Duncan Harris, 287 pgs, $55, 800-313-9553,



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