Sunday, December 28, 2008

From cave dwellers’ murals to Winslow Homer watercolors, representations of flora and fauna comprise the oldest, most enduring form of visual art. Yet today, they are too often dismissed as the sentimental stuff of calendars and greeting cards rather than being valued as worthy of serious study.

Scholar and curator David J. Wagner hopes to restore credibility to such images. He makes a strong case for their renewed appreciation through a new book and a touring exhibition, now on view at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“American Wildlife Art,” published in February by Seattle-based Marquand Books, surveys naturalistic art from Colonial-era book illustrations to present-day public sculptures. In this comprehensive, well-illustrated tome, Mr. Wagner reaches beyond the usual talents to expose the richness of the genre.

As he makes clear, documenting the nation’s wildlife started well before John James Audubon’s seminal work, “Birds of America” (1826-39). In the late 1500s, English explorer John White painted watercolors of the crabs, pelicans and turtles discovered during expeditions on the southeastern coast.

Another Englishman, Mark Catesby, made the next significant contribution in the 1730s with the first color-plate reference book on the species of the New World, titled “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.”

During the 1800s, prints and drawings of native birds by Audubon were followed by more expressive likenesses of predatory beasts. Edward Kenneys, the first wildlife artist born in this country, sculpted lions, panthers and bears for public buildings and parks in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

By the 20th century, wildlife art coincided with a growing interest in outdoor recreation and sports. One of the major talents of the era was German-born Carl Rungius, who based his dramatic, loosely brushed paintings of moose, elk and bighorn sheep on sightings during hunting trips to the West.

Much of this art was part of an effort to record the unfamiliar creatures of a continent still being settled. Today, the Animal Planet television channel and popular documentary films such as “March of the Penguins” have taken the place of paintings and sculptures in revealing the wonders of the natural world. Traditional wildlife art has lost much of its didactic purpose to become merely illustrative.

Not entirely so, however, as shown by the drawings, paintings, prints, photos and sculptures of rare species now on view at the Roosevelt-era Interior Museum. The exhibit, organized by the Wildling Art Museum in Los Olivos, Calif., puts a face on native animals and plants threatened by extinction.

The images in “Endangered Species: Flora & Fauna in Peril” depict the beauty of well-publicized creatures in peril, like the northern spotted owl and bald eagle, as well as more obscure plants and animals. They portray about 47 species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, making an effective case for their preservation through colorful, detailed portrayals.

Mr. Wagner served as consulting curator and tour director of the traveling show of 50 artworks, which veer from delicate botanical drawings to kitschy animal sculptures. The images are arrayed in the 1938 galleries below lighting coves decorated with zinc silhouettes of scenery illustrating the Interior Department’s mission (the museum is worth a visit on its own).

One of the more interesting aspects of the show is the inclusion of statements from the 40 artists, explaining the challenges of finding live examples of threatened species to sketch.

At the suggestion of a botanist at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, artist Lotus McElfish scoured the banks of the San Marcos River to discover some of the last remaining wild rice growing in a fish hatchery. Miami-based Oscar Famili sketched his image of a Florida scrub jay, a bird once common to the Everglades, at a rescue center. Californian Chris Chapman couldn’t locate a jewelflower in its native habitat so he copied its delicate leaves and flowers from plants in a botanical garden.

Much of this wildlife art fails to advance the genre in stylistic terms, but several pieces are leavened with humorous touches to poke fun at tree-hugging earnestness. “Lunch Counter” pictures a grizzly bear sitting with his paw atop a rock as if ordering his next meal. “American Burying Beetle … Going” shows a line of insects emerging from a sheet of paper soiled by coffee cup rings and Oreo cookie crumbs.

References to the wildlife art traditions outlined in Mr. Wagner’s book are evident in other works. Colorado artist Shane Dimmick borrows the fool-the-eye style of 19th-century artist William Hartnett to create the illusion of a drawing of a gray wolf taped to rustic wood paneling. Next to the animal sketch is an image of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park where the wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after decades of extinction.

From tiny snails disappearing from Hawaii’s volcanic ridges to Texan ocelots now confined to wildlife preserves, the small and big creatures depicted in the exhibit serve as reminders of nature’s precariousness in an artificial world. They underscore the increasing draw of wildlife art as environmentalism moves from the fringes into the mainstream.

In his introduction to Mr. Wagner’s book, Canadian-born wildlife artist Robert Bateman summarizes the continuing appeal of the wild kingdom: “As nature becomes more threatened and more precious, the longing for images of it will increase.”

Let’s hope the quality of wildlife artworks does, too.


WHAT: “Endangered Species: Flora & Fauna in Peril”

WHERE: Interior Museum, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. NW

WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. the third Saturday of each month through Feb. 28

ADMISSION: Free; visitors must show photo ID

PHONE: 202/208-4743


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