Wildlife art stays true to nature.
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Wild animals find a natural habitat in the world of contemporary art, despite its mostly urban provenance. Painter Walton Ford appropriates the style of Audubon and George Catlin, embedding his fanciful beasts in a complex symbolic system leavened with irony. Photographer Jill Greenberg portrays monkeys and bears as if she were doing celebrity glamor shots. But when collectors and dealers speak of “contemporary wildlife art,” they mean something else—a school of painting and sculpture that aims at naturalistic accuracy and situates itself within a 19th- and 20th-century realist tradition of direct observation of majestic creatures and the land they inhabit. Most widely available at galleries and auction houses in the American West, contemporary works of wildlife art command high prices and are avidly sought by collectors who prize close observation and attention to detail.
Probably the most esteemed living artist in this field today is Ken Carlson. Born in Minnesota in 1937, he started out as a commercial illustrator, contributing to the 1972 book Birds of North America. Carlson’s paintings of bighorn sheep, antelopes, whooping cranes and other creatures are crisply rendered and usually bathed in warm light. He has also painted after-the-hunt still lifes of game birds. Depending on size and subject, they can cost $25,000 to $50,000.
Until his death at the age of 87 in 2007, Bob Kuhn was generally awarded the accolade of greatest living wildlife artist. Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Kuhn started observing wild animals in the Buffalo Zoo and eventually become a wildlife illustrator. In 1970, he gave up illustration and dedicated all his time to easel painting. His style is somewhat more loose, brushy, or impressionistic than Carlson’s, although Carlson was very much influenced by him. Roxanne Hofmann, managing partner of Trailside Galleries in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Scottsdale, Ariz., and a partner in the Jackson Hole Art Auction, characterizes Kuhn’s work as having “a distinctive, modernist feel,” adding that in the past, wildlife art was “more about being precise” than it is, or needs to be, today. Kuhn’s works regularly achieve high prices at the Jackson Hole Art Auction, which is held once a year, in September, co-produced by Trailside and Gerald Peters Gallery of Santa Fe. In the 2013 sale, a Kuhn acrylic on board of a watchful cougar brought $76,050.
The grandfather of the whole contemporary school of wildlife painters is undoubtedly Carl Rungius (1869–1959), a German immigrant whose eye for anatomical accuracy and masterful paint handling made him a favorite of connoisseurs in the U.S. and Canada. His combination of scientific precision with a sense of drama is second to none, and his works always bring very high prices at auction. A conservationist, Rungius was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who promoted his work. Another ancestral figure revered by today’s artists and collectors is Wilhelm Kuhnert, (1865–1926), a German artist who worked extensively in Africa and was a pioneer in painting animals in the wild as opposed to in zoos. Among early 20th-century American artists, Taos School member Buck Dunton (1878–1936) has been a major influence on several generations of wildlife painters.
As for living artists, the first rank includes Tucker Smith, Robert Bateman, Carl Brenders, Bonnie Maris, and John Banovich, says Hofmann. Among excellent younger artists whose stature continues to grow, Brad Richardson, owner of Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., Jackson, Wyo., and Bozeman, Mont., and a partner (with Michael Frost of Bartfield Galleries in New York and Jack Morris of Morris & Whiteside in Hilton Head, S.C.) in the Scottsdale Art Auction, held each April, cites Luke Frazier and Chad Poppleton. Their works can he had for less than those of the A-listers—perhaps $5,000 to $15,000.
Walter Matia, Tim Shinabarger, and Ken Bunn are standouts among sculptors, as is Bart Walter, an American animalier in the tradition of Rembrandt Bugatti who coaxes bronze into mobile, sinuous forms. Walter’s sculptures of polar bears situate the creatures firmly in their natural habitat, using silvery patinas and stainless steel to suggest ice. Sherry Sander, based in Montana, has traveled all over the world in search of subjects for her bronze sculptures, which often depict groups of animals. Dan Ostermiller is another sculptor who can make bronze seem rippling, fur-clad and alive.
The market generally defines wildlife art as paintings or sculpture of North American (most commonly Western) or African animals and birds. The subset of “sporting art” refers to works that show hunters or fisherman alongside the animals, depicting the human encounter with the animal world. The inclusion of Africa is due to partly to the beauty and wonder of the fauna to be found there, and partly to its historical appeal for American hunters and naturalists. Traditionally, many collectors of wildlife art had this kind of direct connection to the subject.
“In the past, most collectors were sportsmen, hunters, or fly fishermen,” notes Hofmann. “They had a great respect for animals and a keen eye for anatomy. Now, the market is so much broader. It has a great deal to do with the fact that people have second or third homes in areas where this kind of wildlife exists. They’ve developed a passion for the animals and the landscape and want paintings and sculpture of their own. They seek out art that showcases the animal and the environment it inhabits.” Richardson says, “Whether realistic or impressionistic, this art is all representational. No one needs an explanation for what they’re looking at. They know what the artist is trying to convey.”
In order to convey their subject matter, artists tend to rely on a combination of direct observation in the field and research, including the use of photographic references. “You’re not going to get that bear to stand still for very long,” quips Richardson, “so you’re going to be working from a photograph.” The landscape elements, on the other hand, can be and often are painted plein air. As far as style is concerned, the 1970s and ’80s saw an upsurge of photorealist wildlife painting, which was particularly well suited to print reproduction, and there was a brisk market for wildlife prints at the time. However, the prints came to be seen as overvalued and the market for them collapsed. Today, wildlife artists feels free to use painterly, brushy, or impressionistic techniques, while staying true to the ideal of portraying animals and birds faithfully.
The wildlife art market is certainly full of animal spirits. “The auction market is very healthy,” says Hofmann. “It has recovered to pre-recession levels. The collectors that we had this year at our auction were an influx, people who had never purchased from our auctions or gallery before. There was quite a bit of interest from German collectors, as well as from British collectors, Latin Americans and a couple of Russians. It was very exciting to see.” Nedra Matteucci of Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe, which has a strength in wildlife painting and sculpture, says, “The current market for wildlife art is very steady and growing. It reflects an instinctive interest in understanding and preserving our increasingly compromised natural world, especially the animal kingdom. All of us seem to identify with animals in some sense; the role of animals throughout our entwined existence is vital to who we are. Expressed as art, it captures the history and meaning of that bond with the animal world for everyone.”