Wildlife art: Finally getting respect

Since the earliest known paintings are the remarkably lifelike figures of animals discovered deep inside the prehistoric caverns of France, wildlife art can claim a pedigree considerably longer than portraiture, the still life or any other subject matter available to artists. Wild animals figured as symbols of power for Aborigines and Native Americans; heraldic animals from the two-headed Byzantine eagle to its single-faced American cousin have been employed as national emblems. And yet art history has often marginalized feathered and four-legged creatures. Many critics and curators have dismissed wildlife as a subject beneath serious consideration.

David J. Wagner hopes to change that perception with American Wildlife Art, published earlier this year by Marquand Books. A massive volume beautifully illustrated with more than 300 pictures, most of them in color, American Wildlife Art offers an erudite survey of the development of the genre in North America from the 1580s through the present day. For the general public, John James Audubon and Currier & Ives are the best known among the artists covered by Wagner, but most of the painters, lithographers and sculptors presented in his book are of interest to collectors and command solid prices at auction.

The exploration of the New World by European explorers triggered earlier waves of wildlife art and probably set the stage for its dismissal by fine art connoisseurs. Much of American wildlife art was scientific in inception, part of the ambitious efforts of naturalists to visually catalog the unfamiliar creatures of an unknown continent. As a result, many in the art world have deemed wildlife art as merely  illustrative, lacking the profundity of great art. Especially after the advent of Modernism, critics looked down their noses at wildlife art as hopelessly sentimental, fit only for cheap catalogs and “rifle and rod” magazines. Sometimes the critics were correct. But not always.

Formerly the director of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis., and an organizer of wildlife art conferences and exhibitions in the U.S. and Great Britain, Wagner has dedicated his professional career to rehabilitating the reputation of his favorite genre. In effect, American Wildlife Art is a reminder that genres popular among the general public aren’t necessarily bad. They need to be looked at with the same discerning eye that one might direct toward Cubism or Impressionism. Among other things, his book points out that most wildlife art is enjoyed in the form of prints or other images produced in multiples. Much of it was never intended for the enjoyment of solitary connoisseurs or visitors in a museum but to be widely circulated. This was true in the 16th century, when wildlife art was largely produced to illustrate books on the New World, and in the 21st century, when contemporary artists market their prints to collectors and ordinary folk for whom their work is a reminder of the beauty of nature in an increasingly artificial world.

One of the earliest known scientific illustrators documenting the New World appeared in the late 16th century. John White, born in London somewhere between 1540 and 1550, is believed to have traveled on expeditions organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, who was establishing a colonial presence on the eastern coast of America for England. His important historical watercolors included maps of the eastern coast and lush renderings of flying fish, pelicans, turtles and crabs in addition to indigenous plants. His accurate depictions gave Europeans a reliable record of wildlife in the New World. White died in England around 1606. The British Museum houses the largest remaining collection of his work.
Over a century later, Mark Catesby (1683-1749) became the next significant illustrator of American wildlife. Setting sail from his native England in 1712, he arrived in Williamsburg, where his sister was already settled. Exploring the landscape and studying its wildlife, Catesby made his career documenting and publishing the numerous species he encountered. His published book, the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, was the first color-plate scientific reference book on American flora and fauna. Revised editions were published for the next hundred years in England as well as French, Dutch, and German editions. Hand colored etchings by Catesby show up at auction. In June 2006, plate nos. 82 and 90 from the German edition (1749) sold together as a set at Swann in New York for $1,100 (hammer). A May 2008 sale at Brunk Auction in Asheville, N.C., auctioned nine lots of engravings with the hammer ranging from $600 to $2,600.

The 19th century was a pivotal period in the history of American wildlife art. The poet and artist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) produced the first color-plate book of American wildlife art printed and published in the United States. His drawings included bird species that had been discovered by Lewis and Clark on their expedition across the continent to the Pacific coast. Compared to his rather stiff art renderings, Wilson’s descriptions of his subjects are exceptional. His methodical scientific approach gained him the reputation as the “father of American ornithology.” He paved the way for legendary John James Audubon (1785-1851) who published the most ambitious American wildlife art series, Birds of America (1826-1839), a portfolio of 435 plates of life-size images of bird species. Auction results for Wilson’s colored engravings have a range from $50-$900 (hammer). Sales of Audubon’s individual plates from the Birds of America portfolio show results from $1,000 to the record $170,000 (hammer) in 2004 for American Flamingo.

By the late 19th century America became industrialized and an interest in the outdoors and leisure recreation emerged. As sporting life grew, wildlife art reflected this trend through paintings of hunting, fishing and the pursuit of nature. Wildlife art became less scientific and studied and more active, engaging the viewer in the marvels of nature. Two heavyweights surfaced from this transition. Carl Rungius (1869-1959) and Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) established themselves as the premier representatives of American wildlife art of the 20th century. Their distinct style and approach to art modernized and influenced American wildlife artists throughout the century.

Rungius, German-born, moved to the U.S. in 1894 and soon began sketching big-game in Wyoming and Yellowstone Park. Specializing in big-game of the West, his work portrays the natural history of the region. Coeur d’Alene Auction of Idaho, sold The Family (1929), an oil on canvas showing a mother bear and her cubs for a record $850,000 (hammer) in July 2006. Goats, an etching, also sold at Coeur d’Alene for $7,500 (hammer).

Fuertes, born in New York and named after the great naturalist Louis Agassiz, traveled throughout North America, Mexico, Colombia and the West Indies to create a body of work that included murals of wildlife indigenous to the Americas. His concise watercolor renderings of American birds sell well at auction with sales ranging from $700-$7,500.

Throughout the last decade of the 20th century, an excess of entrepreneurial spirit descended upon the wildlife market. The eagle may have been an endangered species but there were far too many bad renderings of the national bird on the market. The output of mediocre and unskilled artists helped maintain wildlife art’s shaky reputation with the “high-brow” critics whose objections were becoming less arguable.
Canadian born artist and conservationist Robert Bateman (b.1930), is one of the most recognized and talented artists of the genre today. Admired by his peers and respected in the market, his comments in the introduction of American Wildlife Art reveal perhaps the best intentions of wildlife art. “I knew I wanted to have adventures in nature and put my ideas about nature down on paper.” As concerns about the environment continue to move from the margins to the mainstream, wildlife art is a reminder of man’s enduring fascination with the natural world.