Since the early days of America’s founding, the close association between hunting and virility has remained unchanged. During the Victorian Era, outdoor, recreational sports became increasingly popular among urban males. The hunt, formerly a recreational privilege of the rich and powerful in Europe, was democratized in America in the 1850s when private and public land became accessible to all. Hunters were free to exploit the wilderness and its wildlife with unfettered zeal, leading to a great reduction in the wildfowl population and the extinction of several species. Professional bird hunting became an accepted annual right for urban business men. Mimicking the migrations of thousands of birds flocking along the east coast, men from the city would take fall and spring vacations to camp in the salt marshes and shoot all forms of wild fowl. While hunting was purely recreation for some, others practiced the sport professionally. Market gunners arose in great numbers during the 1850’s, responding to an urban demand for the inexpensive, abundant and undeniably tasty birds.
The artist Richard LaBarre Goodwin (1840-1910) immortalized the hunter-sportsman ideal through his hauntingly realistic still lifes of fowl and hunting props. A painting such as Wild Game in the Kitchen, which can be viewed in the museum’s gallery of genre painting, was a ubiquitous presence in the Victorian home. While Goodwin painted portraits for a living, his passion lay in painting the hunting cabin door. Expanding on the techniques of trompe l’oeil, he combined a meticulously realistic style with traditional decoy-making. The plain, battered and unpretentious charm of his still lifes distinguished his paintings from the more grandiose, romantic depictions of game by his contemporary, William M. Harnett (1848-1892). Goodwin presented his objects with monumental simplicity by deliberately placing each object carefully onto the canvas. In Wild Game in the Kitchen, the violence of hunting is contrasted with the order of the composition to create a complex narrative of beauty versus destruction. In an age when naturalist explorers destroyed natural life in order to immortalize it in their collections, Goodwin likely experienced conflicted emotions towards the decimation of bird populations. By painting the dead fowl in a detailed, naturalistic style, Goodwin could repossess the lost birds and imbue them with new vitality.
The rural pursuits of 19th century males is revisited in the work of Walton Ford (b. 1960), a contemporary artist who combines grand narrative with naturalistic drawing in order to satirize the exploitation and colonization of nature throughout history. Fascinated with the biography of John James Audobon, the leading 19th century ornothologist who killed thousands of animals in order to record the birds of north America, Ford alludes to the colonial impulses of naturalist explorers in his narrative paintings. Fallen Mias, on view in the museum’s gallery of contemporary art, fuses humor, irony, and bizarre storytelling to focus the viewer’s attention on a serious natural catastrophe: animals facing extinction. Ford lampoons the misguided attempts of primatologist Birute Galdikas to save the indigenous “mias” (translation of “orangutan” in Indonesian) population in Borneo during the 1970’s. In order to protect the animals from extinction, she relocated them into an isolated colony and ultimately disrupted the mias’ natural behavior and habitat. Ford creates a reverse narrative in Fallen Mias in which the Orangutans regain control of their destiny. Galdikas is a diminutive figure, struggling to maintain control over “her” animals, while the Orangutans masquerade across the landscape with the primatologist’s camera.
Ford makes direct reference to Audobon’s 19th century drawings of dead specimens by artificially aging the paper used for his watercolor. By combining his own humor and irony with the didactic art form of scientific illustration, he provides us with an alternative approach towards understanding our relationship with nature. While Ford’s Mias are caricatured characters with whom the viewer can empathize, the decoys in Goodwin’s painting are static objects which have been colonized by the artist’s hand and the viewer’s gaze.
Do Goodwin’s cabin door paintings hold relevance in today’s society? How do you think nature ought to be represented in the 21st century? Is it the responsibility of art to teach the world about the natural world? If so, do you think Ford’s method is effective? What other methods of artistic display might work that combine art and science?