Rediscovering Carl Runguis

Article excerpt

CARL RUNGIUS [1869-1959] HAS LONG BEEN HAILED AS one of America's leading wildlife artists. A painter and sculptor, he received his earliest training in Berlin, where he frequented the Berlin zoo to satisfy his interest in depicting wild animals. He immigrated to the United States in 1896 after becoming enamored of the western landscape and its animal life. As a hunter and an artist Rungius distinguished himself in the field, acquiring both trophy heads and artistic awards for his efforts. His painterly style-ranging from the early, tight realism of WYOMING SAGE to the impressionistic, broken brushwork of COWBOYS IN THE SADDLE-- kept pace with the vanguard movements of his era. His patronage was steady, and his clientele included the leading hunters and conservationists of his day.

Despite such success, Rungius and other wildlife artists like him have always been niche players in arthistorical circles. Although artists have painted wildlife for centuries, rarely has the genre attracted more than passing attention from critics and art museums. And this is despite the fact that paintings of animals-whether capturing a specific animal's likeness or the characteristic behavior of a species-- include many of the same qualities found in human portraiture and genre scenes.

Why is wildlife art so little respected or understood in the world of fine arts? To begin with, the entire genre of contemporary realist art has languished in the face of abstraction, particularly in terms of museum collections. The traditional prejudice against sporting subjects has contributed to this genre's lesser stature, as well. A third factor-less tangible than the first two-involves the collective mindset of art historians, collectors, and art dealers, most of whom have been trained with a western European bias. That tendency has, in turn, encouraged them to favor the artistic milieu of the eastern United States when evaluating an artist's contribution to the history of American art.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the New York-based art market has long ignored Rungius and others like him. Working in a neglected genre, in the actual and art-historical wilderness of the western United States and Canada, Rungius created an impressive oeuvre that has gone all but unnoticed.

Rungius is certainly not the only or the most illustrious artist to have so languished. Frederic Remington, one of Rungius' admirers, suffered a similar fate.

Both men loved life in the rapidly vanishing American West; both also attracted the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who shared their vision of the West as a measure of the hardiness of the American character.

Rungius may have impressed Remington and Roosevelt; however, the three men collectively projected an image that was counter to the eastern Gilded Age paradigm in vogue at the time. The style was espoused by, and personified by, writer Henry James, who extolled the aura of worldly sophistication projected by John Singer Sargent's interiors and their denizens while bemoaning the barefoot and freckled urchins who romp through Winslow Homer's genre scenes. Remington and Rungius would have been outside the pale for James, who desperately wanted America to assume the veneer of European aristocratic taste. That attitude has filtered down into the evaluation of virtually all fin-de-siecle American artists, rendering Rungius, and his subject matter, virtually invisible.

Rediscovering Carl Rungius is becoming easier, however, thanks to a loyal cadre of collectors and the diligent efforts of three museums. The largest collection of his paintings, along with numerous oil sketches and drawings, resides in the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. The Glenbow collection encompasses every facet of Rungius' career, with an emphasis on the work he made in Canada. For over 20 years, the artist spent part of each year hunting and painting near Banff in British Columbia. On these extended forays, Rungius painted pure landscapes of the area surrounding Lake Louise. …