Perspective | The greatest bird artist you’ve never heard of (2023)


Rex Brasher painted more birds than Audubon, and he never owned slaves

Perspective | The greatest bird artist you’ve never heard of (1)

Perspective by Philip Kennicott

Senior art and architecture critic

April 29, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT


9 min


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On a gray day in March, Rex Brasher’s place looks a bit forlorn. The farmhouse is empty and the little shop made of cinder blocks feels derelict. But the leaders of the Rex Brasher Association who have gathered to show off the place see only possibilities for the 116-acre property.

They want to place this wooded patch of the Taconic Range into conservancy, add modern studios for artist and naturalist residencies, refurbish the main house and cottage, and build a small museum inside the old shop. Two years after the death of the last Brasher relative to live on-site, they hope to resurrect the legacy and reputation of a man many people feel painted birds as well as or better than John James Audubon.

Born in 1869, Brasher left an enormous body of paintings, almost 900 large-scale watercolors documenting American bird life and habitat, that became the source material for a monumental 12-volume compendium of hand-colored reproductions published as “Birds & Trees of North America.” He also made an unknown number of miscellaneous paintings and drawings, wrote a delightfully eccentric volume of philosophical reflections called “Secrets of the Friendly Woods,” and penned a hand-illustrated autobiographical account of his early forays, by sailboat, to document waterfowl from New England to Florida.

Brasher was a retiring artist — a modest man who lived much of his life off the grid — which may be one reason he isn’t more famous. But his life’s project to document American birds, an effort to outdo Audubon that began in the 1890s and continued into the 1920s, was celebrated in its day, with an exhibition at the Explorers Hall of the National Geographic Society in 1938. Later, when he began hand-coloring more than 87,000 individual plates for publication, the project attracted subscriptions from collectors and patrons, as well as universities and libraries. Today, a complete set of his printed work can fetch more than $40,000. He was praised by naturalists including John Burroughs (“he is the greatest bird painter of all time”) and T. Gilbert Pearson, who helped found the organization that would ultimately become the National Audubon Society (“When you see a Brasher bird, you have seen the bird itself, lifelike and in a natural attitude”).

But Brasher was very much a man of the 19th century, and despite periodic efforts to revive his work, his legacy — closely observed, naturalistic renderings of animal life — still suffers from having been out of step with the avant-garde and experimental art of the 20th century. That could change, however. The Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, which owns some 800 of the original watercolors, is planning to make them more accessible to the public with exhibitions in a new building, for which they will shortly begin fundraising. The efforts of the Rex Brasher Association, which has taken stewardship of the Upstate New York property near Kent, Conn., where Brasher lived until the mid 1940s, include digitizing and publicizing his work. And cultural changes, including a broader sense of what qualifies as fine art and a new urgency about the fragility of the natural world, may make people today more sympathetic to rediscovering his legacy.


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Brasher may also benefit from growing awareness that Audubon, to whom he was often compared, was a complicated, often odious figure, whose interest in birds grew out of a raw will to power more than any particular love of the species. Audubon was a formidable artist but also a ferocious antagonist within what Audubon scholar Gregory Nobles calls the “ornithological wars of the 1830s.” He was also an enslaver and deeply contemptuous of the abolitionist movement in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where he spent considerable time preparing his landmark publication, “The Birds of America,” published between 1827 and 1838. The National Audubon Society is in turmoil today as local chapters drop the Audubon name and board members resign because the national leadership refuses to do so.

Audubon studied birds in the wild before shooting them and then staging their carcasses in lifelike poses, a work process that has also aroused criticism even though it was standard practice for naturalists to kill animals they sought to collect and preserve. Those collections remain scientifically invaluable.

Brasher’s personality and working methods (he abjured the killing of birds and was deeply connected to the natural world) stand in sharp contrast to Audubon. But his life’s project to document all the birds of North America was curiously intertwined with that of his predecessor, at least according to family lore.

In a 1961 biography of his uncle, Milton Brasher recounted a primal scene between Rex’s father, Philip, an amateur ornithologist, and Audubon, who had invited and then rebuffed a visit from the elder Brasher. After being turned away from the door of Audubon’s home in upper Manhattan, Brasher formed an inveterate loathing of the great man. “Audubon did not do his paintings from life as he was reputed to do; he did them from a dead bird skin hanging from the ceiling. … He was a faker! He was, from that moment on, complete anathema,” wrote Milton Brasher, imputing to Rex’s father — and perhaps Rex himself — Shakespearean levels of pique.

Rex seems to have processed his father’s anger into a more considered critical dislike of Audubon’s work. Audubon’s original paintings are a marvel, especially when seen up close. They are marvelously detailed and dramatic, and Audubon was particularly alert to the iridescent quality of feathers, which he reproduced with layers of silvery graphite over the pigments. But these images are also stagy and contrived, as if his birds are players on a stage, dramatically illuminated in the glow of gaslight.


Audubon’s birds are tragic heroes, greater than life but also doomed even before the painter set to work painting their lifeless bodies. The artist’s larger agenda was ornithological nationalism, an effort to elevate the stature of American birds, while simultaneously staking an American claim to the continent and its resources, using birds as a proxy. Audubon saw himself as a woodsman, as well as a naturalist, and he used strikingly bellicose language to describe his travels and research. Audubon used the study of birds to bring some substantial portion of the natural world under the hegemony of American science and enlightenment — and then he cooked and ate them.

Brasher sought a more naturalistic treatment, without Audubon’s operatic drama. Although he hunted and collected birds as a young man, he gave up that approach later, preferring close observation to specimen hunting. His paintings have a lightness and transparency wholly different from Audubon’s heightened atmosphere. He also had access to museums with extensive specimen collections and the published work of predecessors. He painted over 1,200 species of birds, far more than Audubon’s 497, but he was also building on the legacy of Audubon and others, including the artist Audubon sought to outdo, Alexander Wilson, the Scottish-born “father of American ornithology,” who died in 1813.

Between the early days of the artist-woodsman ornithologists and the death of Brasher a century and a half later, the science of ornithology spun off a vital and flourishing adjunct: birdwatching. Brasher might be considered the patron saint of that project. He was keenly interested in making accurate images of birds, but he was also interested in learning from birds. In “Secrets of the Friendly Woods,” he wrote about nature with a mix of genial animism and psychological insight. Nature was inexhaustible for him: “Forty years have not diminished the hope that each time afield I shall see something new, learn a novel habit of a bird or animal, and that expectation is seldom disappointed.”

Daniel Brooks, who curated a small 2022 exhibition of Brasher’s work at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, says that while Audubon may have recorded the “morphological details” of birds more accurately, Brasher’s birds were “much more accurate than Audubon’s, in terms of the way they appeared in life.” Nonetheless, wrote Brooks in an email to The Washington Post, Audubon’s work became more popular: “Apparently the postures of the grossly misfigured birds were admired by collectors.”

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The difference between the artists’ work is like the difference between a grand aristocratic portrait and a psychologically nuanced character sketch. Audubon gets the dress and regalia right, and his birds project a powerful, self-fashioning sense of their own presence and importance. Brasher’s birds live contentedly in their own world and don’t need to perform or impress the viewer. If Brasher sometimes tends to moralize when he writes about birds, it isn’t Aesopian. The moral is almost always the same: We could learn a lot from birds.

Matthew Schnepf, a board member of the Rex Brasher Association, puts it this way: “He’s always writing from a point of view of, if only humans could get to this level of simplicity and clarity, if only humans could be more like birds.”

Brasher’s life project was mostly finished by the end of the first third of the 20th century. At least twice before he finally finished the 874 watercolors, he destroyed his earlier efforts. He was a perfectionist who sought out birds by boat, bicycle, canoe and on foot. The Wall Street crash of 1929, which led some early subscribers to drop out of supporting the project, greatly hurt the prospects of him eclipsing Audubon’s reputation. But he was also making naturalist images at a time when the rest of the art world was going in very different, more abstract, experimental, confrontational directions.


The art world is more capacious today and less interested in perpetuating the hierarchical distinctions that award lower status to subcategories of representation, such as bird art. Brasher’s love of birds, articulated in his writing and manifest in his painting, speaks with fresh vigor to anyone who believes that an essential part of art is looking, studying and seeing fine distinctions in the world. Perhaps he was motivated to outdo Audubon’s work as a naturalist. But if birds had a say in this, they would almost certainly prefer Brasher.

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What is the summary of the bird artist? ›

“The Bird Artist” recounts in the first-person the growing-up of Fabian Vas in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, early in this century. From childhood he drew and painted birds; and as an adult he makes most of his living doing it, along with a little shipyard carpentry.

What was John James Audubon famous for 1 point? ›

His famous Birds of America stands out as Audubon's crowning achievement. These 453 life-sized paintings of north American birds were remarkable for their accuracy of color and realism. After the publication of Birds of America, Audubon issued a highly successful, smaller 7-volume octavo edition.

Why did John James Audubon paint birds? ›

As a young man John James Audubon was obsessed with birds, and he had a vision for a completely different kind of book. He would paint birds as he saw them in the wild "alive and moving," and paint every species actual size.

Which artist is known for his realistic renditions of birds? ›

John James Audubon (1785-1851)

He is known for the book The Birds of America, a series of 435 life-sized, hand-colored plates of the continent's avifauna derived from his realistic watercolor paintings of birds.

What is the main idea of the poem bird? ›

The main theme of the poem "A Bird Came Down the Walk" is the duality of nature—how beautiful and at the same time how dangerous it can be.

What is the theme of the story the bird? ›

As a fable of humility, “The Birds” condemns humanity's hubristic belief that we can control the world around us. Building on the theme of man vs. nature, Du Maurier's tale rejects the notion of humankind as the master of nature, instead suggesting that any belief in human superiority to nature is foolish and doomed.

What did Audubon do to the birds? ›

Like almost all naturalists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Audubon killed birds. As well as for food and for sport, he shot birds because he loved them and wanted to study them in detail. His great challenge as an artist was to create the illusion of life from the dead specimens in front of him.

What is the most significant fact about John James Audubon? ›

He was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations, which depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book titled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed.

Why is Audubon important? ›

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation.

What does painting of birds mean? ›

Birds often symbolize a certain aspirational quality that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, which is why depictions of divine beings often draw upon the physicality of these winged creatures. Renaissance paintings and prints, for example, present angels with human bodies but bird-like wings.

Did Audubon paint every bird? ›

According to Audubon biographer William Souder, “At one time or another, Audubon killed specimens of all but a handful of the more than four hundred species of birds he ultimately painted, plus most of the quadrupeds of North America, from squirrels to alligators to moose.”

How many birds did John James Audubon discover? ›

Throughout his travels, he identified, studied and drew almost 500 species of American birds. Singlehandedly, Audubon raised the equivalent of millions of dollars to publish a great, four-volume work of art and science, The Birds of America.

Which artist was was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego? ›

Loplop, or more formally, Loplop, Father Superior of the Birds, is the name of a birdlike character that was an alter ego of the Dada-Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Ernst had a ongoing fascination with birds, which often appear in his work. Loplop functioned as a familiar animal.

Who is the best wildlife artist? ›

Wild Life Painter - 20 of the Best Wildlife Artists
  • Carl Brenders. “Golden Season” painting by renowned wildlife artist Carl Brenders. ...
  • David Shepherd. “A Very Wise Old Elephant” original painting by wildlife artist David Shepherd. ...
  • Alan M. Hunt. ...
  • George McLean. ...
  • Terry Isaac. ...
  • Kathryn Hansen. ...
  • John Perry Baumlin.

What artist is known as bird? ›

Charles Parker Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), nicknamed "Bird" or "Yardbird", was an American jazz saxophonist, band leader and composer.

What is the meaning of the bird in literature? ›

In FAIRY TALES, those who understand the language of the bird are often able to attain special knowledge, and people are often transformed into birds. They are thought and imagination, transcendence and divinity, freedom from materialism. May also stand for the metamorphosis of a lover.

What is the author's message in bird by bird? ›

Bird by Bird is devoted to explaining the art of writing, which Lamott quickly distinguishes from the business of publishing. Writing is an act of the soul, necessary for a writer's survival; publishing is merely a prize on one's mantel.

What is the moral lesson of the story the bird box? ›


The people in bird box were all afraid of looking because internally (Spiritually) they were afraid to allow evil to creep into their soul. The people who were affected and able to still see as if they were never affected was because those who are evil are never effected by evil.

What is the significance of Birds of America? ›

John James Audubon's Birds of America is a portal into the natural world. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds (Havell edition), all reproduced from hand-engraved plates, and is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.

What does Audubon Society say about bird feeders? ›

We're recommending that people take down their bird feeders or don't fill them right now. And to empty the bird baths where birds may come to drink or to bathe,” said Mike Lynes, policy director for Audubon California.

What birds did Audubon not exist? ›

Curiously however, five of the birds Audubon painted have never been identified: Townsend's Finch, Cuvier's Kinglet, Carbonated Swamp Warbler, Small-headed Flycatcher and Blue Mountain Warbler. These birds have never been positively identified, and no identical specimens have been confirmed since Audubon painted them.

Did Audubon make up birds? ›

Audubon was a keen observer in the field, to be sure, but most of his drawings were made from recently-killed birds he collected for use as models.

What is the meaning of Audubon? ›

bird watcher, ornithologist. a zoologist who studies birds.

Who inspired the creation of the Audubon Society and what is he known for? ›

1896 Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall organize a series of afternoon teas to convince Boston society ladies to eschew hats with bird feathers. These meetings culminate in the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

What are the values of the Audubon Society? ›

Audubon's mission is to restore and conserve natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.

Is Audubon anti hunting? ›

True, Audubon chapters, like those of other conservation organizations, may be composed primarily of members sympathetic to anti-hunting causes.

How effective is the Audubon Society? ›

This charity's score is 93%, earning it a Four-Star rating.
Rating Information.
Leadership & Adaptability7.5
Culture & Community10
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Which bird symbolizes peace in art *? ›

The dove. The dove has been a symbol of peace and innocence for thousands of years in many different cultures. In ancient Greek mythology it was a symbol of love and the renewal of life and in ancient Japan a dove carrying a sword symbolised the end of war.

What is the figurative meaning of for the birds? ›

For the birds is an idiom describing something as useless, meaningless, or only believed by the gullible. It is often used with the modifier strictly.

What does a bird symbolize in design? ›

Birds symbolize peace, freedom, and happiness. Often images of birds can be seen in compositions related to comfort, love, and family. At the same time, predatory representatives serve as a symbol of strength, power, and purposefulness in a number of creative projects.

What is the oldest bird art? ›

The original miniature bird figurine discovered at Lingjing (Henan Province, China), dated to 13,500 years ago, and a 3-D μ-CT recreation creating using X-ray micro-computed tomography.

Why is it called the painted bird? ›

The book's title was drawn from an incident in the story. The boy, while in the company of a professional bird catcher, observes how the man took one of his captured birds and painted it several colors.

How many of the birds Audubon painted are extinct? ›

Audubon painted the Great Auk, despite the fact that he never saw a living specimen, leaving us a lasting record of this extinct species. Audubon painted five birds that are now extinct.

Who holds the record for most birds seen in one year? ›

Just over halfway through the year, a man named John Weigel spotted a Buller's shearwater in California on July 16, making him the holder of the record for most bird species seen in North America in a calendar year: 750.

How many birds have disappeared in North America since 1970? ›

Nearly 3 Billion Birds Gone Since 1970

Grassland bird populations collectively have declined by 53%, or another 720 million birds.

Is Audubon changing its name? ›

Earlier this month, the National Audubon Society announced its decision to keep “Audubon” in its name, saying that it's important in allowing the organization to keep protecting birds. The open letter also says the organization represents “much more than the work of one person.”

Who was famous for illustrating birds? ›

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America (Alexander Wilson has that distinction), but for half a century he was the young country's dominant wildlife artist.

Who was famous for painting birds? ›

John James Audubon

Celebrated throughout the 19th century for his descriptive bird paintings, Audubon is still considered one of America's most prolific bird artists. His book The Birds of America catalogues 435 art prints depicting a wide range of North American birds.

Why did Joseph Cornell use birds? ›

For Cornell, birds were a symbol of heaven and freedom, their flight path linking heaven and earth. The artist made a number of 'habitats', such as this work, in the 1940s and 1950s, using natural materials collected on walks in the woods and fields of Long Island.

Who is the best bird artist? ›

David Allen Sibley has been called the most important illustrator of birds since John James Audubon or Roger Torey Petersen, and his "Sibley Guides to Birds" have sold more than two million copies. Rita Braver finds out how the bird fancier became one of the most respected and successful chroniclers of avian life.

What animal paintings sell the most? ›

  1. Elephants: The Ultimate Wildlife Art Bestsellers. ...
  2. Tigers: The Big Cat Wildlife Art Bestseller. ...
  3. Monkeys: Great Apes Are The Bestsellers. ...
  4. Giraffes: The Surprising Wildlife Art Bestsellers. ...
  5. Lions: Evergreen and Popular Wildlife Art Bestsellers. ...
  6. Orangutans: The Bestselling Great Apes.

Who is the most famous wildlife activist? ›

Jane Goodall. One of the most well-known and celebrated animal activists is the one and only Jane Goodall. Now considered the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, she shook up the scientific community when she became the first to argue that chimpanzees have emotions and personalities.

What bird represents in art? ›

Birds in art represent a range of ideas including freedom, nobility, fertility, and bravery just to name a few. Figures of birds are often used to symbolize the poet or musician, are considered omens both for good and ill, and are sometimes thought to be the messengers of the gods.

Which artist became famous for the work The Birds of America? ›

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a self-taught artist specialising in ornithological (bird) paintings and is most famous for his magnificent double-elephant folio, The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838, which consists of 435 hand-coloured plates.

What is the plot summary of The Birds by Daphne du Maurier? ›

The story is set in du Maurier's home county of Cornwall shortly after the end of the Second World War. A farmhand, his family and community come under lethal attack from flocks of birds. By the end of the story, it becomes clear that all of Britain is under aerial assault.

How to Know the Birds summary? ›

Publisher's Summary

How to Know the Birds introduces a new, holistic approach to bird-watching, by noting how behaviors, settings, and seasonal cycles connect with shape, song, color, gender, age distinctions, and other features traditionally used to identify species.

What is the summary of bird in a cage? ›

Bird in a Cage [1961/2016] – ★★★★

This short existential noir thriller tells of Albert, a thirty-year-old man, who arrives to his Paris apartment where he grew up. His mother died some years before, and, feeling nostalgic, Albert wonders around his Parisian quartier, trying to recall happy memories from his childhood.

What is the purpose of bird by bird by Anne Lamott? ›

Plot Summary. Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott is a step-by-step guide on how to realize one's writing dreams as well as how to manage the life of a writer. Lamott's inspiring guide takes aspiring writers through the entire process of conceptualizing, drafting, and polishing a final piece.

What happens at the end of The Birds short story? ›

The film ends with Melanie inside Mitch's boarded-up home along with his mother and much younger sister, Cathy. Melanie's almost killed when she unknowingly enters a room that birds had breached, and though Mitch is able to get her to safety, she's in need of medical attention.

What is the meaning of The Birds by Daphne du Maurier? ›

Du Maurier establishes the birds as part of the natural world through their connection with the tide. Nat's survivalism continues to spur his actions. The huge number of birds committing kamikaze-style attacks suggests the depth of their urge to reach human beings, as well as the lack of reason behind their actions.

What is the climax of The Birds story? ›

Climax. The highest and most intense point of the movie is when Melanie is in the restaurant, talking to the other townspeople and tourists about the strange behaviour of the birds. While they are discussing, a man across the street at the gas station is struck by a seagull and knocked to the ground.

What is the main idea of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? ›

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a 1969 autobiography describing the young and early years of American writer and poet Maya Angelou. The first in a seven-volume series, it is a coming-of-age story that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma.

Why did the bird refuse to be taken out in her cage? ›

The bird refused to be taken out in the cage because according to him the view was not the same. The rice-fields, the lake and the willow trees looked quite different when he would see them through the bars of a cage versus while flying.

What do The Birds symbolize in The Birds book? ›

The birds in the book symbolize both connection and freedom. They connect her to her grandmother, and introduce her to her husband.

What is the significance of bird in art? ›

Birds in art represent a range of ideas including freedom, nobility, fertility, and bravery just to name a few. Figures of birds are often used to symbolize the poet or musician, are considered omens both for good and ill, and are sometimes thought to be the messengers of the gods.

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