Thursday, September 11, 2008

Call of the Wild

To many Europeans of the late 19th century, America represented a land of plenty with boundless opportunities for hunting, an image fueled by popular "Wild West" novels. The first edition of Karl May’s “Winnetou” trilogy appeared in 1893 – books that were soon to make him the most widely read German author ever. Many of his books are written as first-person accounts by the narrator-protagonist, and he sometimes claimed that he actually experienced the events he described. However these stories were written by May while he was in prison. Before writing his tales of the "Wild West," he had never seen the US. His resources included travel accounts,maps, guide books and his own imagination. He made a brief visit to America shortly before his death, but he never saw the western United States he had written about. Buffalo NY was as far West as her went.

I wonder if he had the opportunity to meet Carl Rungius?

Rungius at the easel in a 1950 photograph

Rungius was born in Germany in 1869. From an early age, he was determined to become an artist. Following the German passion for all things Western, Rungius jumped at the chance to visit an uncle in the United States, and he immigrated to the United States in 1896.

Rungius is important in the art world today because he was an innovator - the first career wildlife artist in America. He situated animals in their natural environment, a practice that was new to painting in early twentieth century North America. If he was lucky, back then, he got $25 apiece for them. Like Karl May, his works played an important role in the creation and popularity of the mythic American West, artfully blending history and fiction.

I am so impressed with his use of light and shadow; in both his animal studies and his landscapes, he always executed perfect compositions. I have used his example in painting the ACEO of the wildlife below:

Frederic Remington attended the first major one-man exhibition of Rungius's work in 1908, at the Salmagundi Club in New York City, and afterwards sent him a letter extolling their mutual involvement in depicting rapidly disappearing aspects of American life.

Rungius's ability to accurately depict a number of species secured him a commission to supply the New York Zoological Society with a contract to document threatened species. These paintings, done between1914 and 1934, were collectively entitled the Gallery of Wild Animals and hung in the administration building of the zoological society. The society specifically requested that in doing these paintings Rungius abandon his more impressionistic mature style in favor of his earlier, more precise renderings of animals, as the society wished to maintain scientific exactness in the depiction of threatened species. To this Rungius somewhat reluctantly agreed.

Carl Rungius died in 1959.

Prints of Rungius’s work are available here

Photos of Carl Rungius and his travels are available at the Glenbow museum

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