North America’s Jagdmaler.
If German-born Carl Rungius (1869–1959) were alive today, he’d loathe being called “the father of North American wildlife art” as much as he loathed the term “sporting art” used to describe his emblematic oils and etchings of big-game. “What do you mean sporting art? There is only art; it may be good or bad, but it is still art!” he said about the genre disdained by fine-art critics because of its subject.
Things were different in Europe, especially in Germanic cultures, where Jagdmaleri (hunting art and portraying the creatures of the chase) easily dates back to Dürer’s 1501 to 1503 engravings of European moose, roe deer, and a red stag head pierced by a hunter’s bow. Depicting trophy antlers are part of a long Teutonic tradition. When Prussian King Frederick I killed a 66-point stag in 1696, its image was made famous by Johan Elias Ridinger (1698–1767), whose 1,000-plus etchings of fallow deer, ibex, and other game served not only to increase scientific knowledge of their habits and habitats, but also to educate hunters about their headgear and tracks.
Noble and rich sportsmen decorated their hunting lodges with roaring stags and fleeing wild boar by German artists like Carl Friedrich Deiker, Christian Kröner, and Rungius’s brilliant mentor Richard Friese, who became Kaiser Wilhelm II’s personal Jagdmaler, even recreating his 1909 16-point stag in a larger-than-life bronze sculpture for the imperial hunting castle in the Rominten Heath. “A painter of wildlife has greater social standing in a monarchy than in a democracy,” bemoaned Rungius.
Rungius joked that he was “born American,” but in fact he was born in rural Rixdorf near Berlin, the first of nine children of a Lutheran pastor, who kept Prussian order in his garden with a .22. Carl famously skinned these marauding feral cats, meticulously drawing their exposed musculature and boiled skeletons, alongside his grandfather, whose interest in natural science included collecting, mounting, and drawing birds. A poor scholar, Rungius said that “the family honor demanded that I go far enough in school to entitle me to a year’s military service,” which paid off over his 50 years of shooting big-game species in Wyoming, New Brunswick, the Yukon, and the Canadian Rockies in order to portray them.
Although Rungius attended the Berlin Art Academy, his father insisted he also learn the trade of housepainter, so he studied ornamental design at the School of Applied Art and worked summers painting decorative ceilings. Evening classes on sketching nudes taught him draughtsmanship, which “was the basis of all my work.” Like Wilhelm Kuhnert and sculptor August Gaul, he studied under Peter Meyerheim, learning animal anatomy from drawing horses at the glue factory, and the expression and movement of animals at the Berlin zoo.
No comparable curriculum existed in the States. Rungius’s destiny-changing mercurial patron, William T. Hornaday, Director of the New York Zoological Society and founder of the Bronx Zoo, bewailed that not a single American institution “contains a noteworthy painting of a wild animal.” Yet when influential nature author Ernest Thompson Seton proposed that an art school be built in the Bronx Zoo, the funding fizzled.
In 1894, Rungius’s “American uncle,” Dr. Clemens Fulda, invited him to hunt moose in Maine. Although he fell in love with his 14-year-old niece Louise (whom he married in 1907), he didn’t get a moose. Instead of returning foreverto Germany with a prestigious hunting trophy, then following Deiker and Friese into a career illustrating magazines such as Das Weidwerk im Wort und Bild, (the Art of Hunting in Words and Pictures), he attended New York’s first Sportman’s Show, where he met Ira Dodge, a hunting guide representing the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, who invited him to hunt Wyoming.
Rungius made his way from Opal in a covered wagon and a four-horse team to the Wind River Mountains, where he spent six months hunting pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk. For Rungius, the trophy wasn’t the rack but the art that resulted from ingeniously stringing up his quarry to sketch it from different angles at different times of day, tracking its changing colors and how shadow play modeled its form and antlers.
In 1896, he returned to Germany with canvases worthy of a one-man show at Berlin’s Gallery Schulte. Yet a year later, opting for the Land of Opportunity’s general lack of tradition and class distinctions, he returned to America for good.
Although he still hadn’t killed a moose, Rungius based an inspired still-life portrait on specimens from Sauter’s Taxidermy Shop. It was hanging in Knoedler’s Gallery when Hornaday bought it and began promoting the artist to his high-society hunter-naturalist friends at the Boone and Crockett and Camp Fire Clubs, to which Rungius soon belonged.
For 15 years, he worked as a graphic artist illustrating animal tales and outdoor magazines such as Forest and Stream and Recreation, while his time in the field exploded. In 1904 he accompanied naturalist Charles Sheldon to the Yukon to shoot and paint Dall and Fannin sheep, an effort to determine whether they were separate species or different color phases of the same animal. For a decade he hunted moose on foot in New Brunswick, and later on horseback through Canada’s high-country plateaus. In 1910, after pursuing bighorn sheep, caribou, and bear in the Canadian Rockies, Rungius made portraying North American game in art his mission and built a studio, The Paint Box, in Banff, where he hunted and painted six months a year until two years before his death at age 90. No wonder he allegedly turned down Göring’s invitation to East Prussia’s hunting grounds: the North American wilderness was his personal hunting preserve.
As aide-mémoires, Rungius made countless pencil and charcoal sketches, took hundreds of reference photos, and painted over a thousand 9 x 11-inch oil sketches of landscapes. He distinguished between sharp-edged shapes in Wyoming’s horizonless arid air; the soft wet grays and blurred blue-green hues of New Brunswick’s spruce and fir country; and the geological grandeur of Alberta’s heavily glaciated mountain ranges. He loaded his palette accordingly with ultramarine, cerulean, cadmium red and yellow, alizarin crimson, viridian, burnt sienna, yellow-ochre, and half-and-half and zinc whites.
Intellectually, Rungius was anchored back East, rubbing elbows with patrons or fellow member artists at the Salmagundi Club and the National Academy of Design, which finally accepted him after a decade of painting cowboys and landscapes without wild animals.
Rungius’s oeuvre evolved over time. If German Romanticism informed the tone of his earlier deeply shadowed forests, he caught Impressionism’s dancing light in the palmated cups of moose beams and on the polished tines of antlers. After 1920, Jay Hambidge’s book, Principles of Dynamic Symmetry, which put forth a geometrical method of organizing and relating lines, curves and shapes to each other, profoundly influenced his composition.
But lines alone and focusing on the animal weren’t enough for Rungius to convey Alberta’s scale, depth of field, and alpine light. So, Cezanne-like, he re-interpreted the volume and planes of forms, later advising Canadian artist Clarence Tillenius to “see a sphere as made up of flat planes. Tree trunks, rocks, boulders—make them so a single brushstroke makes the plane . . . Use straight strokes wherever you can . . . Make up a curve of straight lines.” This translated into the shapes and textures of vertical lodgepole pines, downed timber, chunky boulders, drop-dead cliffs, and distant mountain peaks to flatter his rutting bull moose, bugling elk, and bands of wild rams. His vantage point was usually the hunter’s, seeing his quarry in their regal prime emerging broadside from forests or crowning crags.
Rungius started a canvas by removing its white glare with a pigmented wash, which also established its tonality; then he determined its “values,” or light and dark areas in relationship to each other, to give direction to the viewer’s eye. He selected the pictorial elements for the increasingly important landscape’s foreground, mid- and far-distance to offset and balance the often almost centered subject.
At first, he built up paint through a series of thin color washes—pigments thinned with equal measures of benzene and turpentine—especially in the foreground and in the animal’s form and pelage, keeping the sky and horizon more transparent to convey their vivid luminosity. Later, he applied thick paint with wide brushes in short but fluid broad strokes to take advantage of its sculptural qualities, creating surface textures whose edges reflect light.
Unlike today’s outdoor artists, who are hounded for fund-raising donations, Rungius never “fought” for conservation, never felt it was art’s job to contribute to game or wilderness preservation. It really was all about the art. With his hunting experiences that today would cost an artist millions of dollars, Rungius said that “No one will paint them as I have, because no one will see them as I have.”
Brooke Chilvers tip-topped through the April tulips to the Netherland’s Rijksmuseum Twenthe, where curator Paul Knolle shared its hidden treasures of works by Rungius, Liljefors, Kuhnert, and Friese.