Morris Museum of Art
The Sporting View: American Sporting Art from the Collection of Robert B. Mayo
The works on exhibit in The Sporting View are drawn from the collection of Robert B. Mayo of Gloucester, Virginia. Throughout his distinguished career, as a collector, museum curator and director, gallery owner, art dealer, historian, and lecturer, he has also been an avid hunter and fisherman. These interests merged over the years, as he developed an impressive collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sporting art. (left: Fulmer, Tying the Fly, 1933, oil on canvas, 26 x 20 inches)
In the 1980s, he began to explore in depth the role of sporting subjects in the history of American art, tracing the evolution of sporting art from eighteenth-century portraits of country gentlemen with their dogs, fish, or game, up to the twentieth-century conservation movement that led to today's proliferation of wildlife artists.
The Morris Museum of Art is the first museum in the country to focus on the art of the South. The major themes that run throughout the exhibition -- hunting, fishing, and the beauty of the land -- are subjects that Southerners and visitors alike can appreciate. (left: W. H. Reed, Marsh Hunting, 1865, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches)
The following excerpts are taken from Robert Mayo's essay in America: The Sporting View, published in 1985 by the Longwood Fine Arts Center, Longwood College, Farmville, Virginia.
American Sporting Art: A Brief History
In 1607, when a group of Englishmen had first stepped ashore on Jamestown Island in Virginia, Captain John Smith made the comment that wild beasts flourished on the land, birds blocked out the sun on their Southern migration, and fish were so thick in the James River that one could walk across their backs. America was a land of plenty, but it was also harsh and savage to the gentlemen of the Old World. Killing game and netting fish were not leisure sports in seventeenth-century America; they were a necessity for survival. (left: George Browne (1918-1958), Pintails Alighting, undated, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches)
By mid-eighteenth century, the American citizenry had found more time to enjoy the bounty of the land through sport. American portraiture of this period began to show gentlemen or their sons standing with gun, dog, fish, or game. For those who could not afford their own sporting portraits, there were European sporting prints for sale. These prints not only served to decorate the home, but many served as inspiration for American paintings. (right: Lewis Herzog (1868-1940), Fixing the Line, 1888, pen and ink on paper, 8 x 10 1/4 inches)
With the beginning of the nineteenth century and the development of urban cultural centers along the East Coast -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston -- American artists began to record their own land, and in the process of painting their landscapes, they might place a hunter, fisherman, or wildlife within the composition to show the scale and vastness of the American terrain. Seldom were these artists interested in recording the hunter or fisherman as the central theme of the painting; the landscape was paramount. Later, there evolved an interest in the native bounty. Artists began to paint sporting themes, including portraits of specific animals, and genre scenes of dogs working the fields, ducks over a marsh, and fish on a riverbank. The focus became capturing a moment of action in nature. (left: William Meade Prince (attr.) (1893-1951), No Fishing, undated, watercolor on paper, 13 x 11 inches)
By the middle of the nineteenth century, hunting and fishing were part of the successful gentleman's life. Trips were taken to the Adirondacks for deer hunting and fishing. The coastal waterways were populated with waterfowl hunters. Without the camera, paintings were the best way to preserve a souvenir of their success. Many such paintings were commissioned by the sportsmen themselves, or were done to record the artist's own experience. (left: George F. Fuller (1822-1884), Salmon Fishing, Connecticut River, undated, grissaille on board, 12 x 17 1/2 inches)
One of the most interesting fields of American art. which would develop in the nineteenth century and continue into the first half of the twentieth century, resulted from American writers' demand for pictures to accompany their publications. A generation of illustrative artists produced a continuous stream of work in steel engraving, lithography, wood engraving, chromolithography, etching, and eventually, offset printing. Sporting subjects were very popular with Americans in the late nineteenth century, as evidenced by the number of sporting prints published by Currier & Ives. Books and prints depicting upland birds. waterfowl, fish, wild animals, and scenes of American sporting life were in great demand by the new middle class of America. (left: Edmund Henry Osthaus (1858-1928), Ranging Hunters, 1903, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches)
Another late-nineteenth-century emphasis in sporting art was the still life. Artists developed a tight, realistic style of painting associated with European trompe l'oeil paintings. Subjects ranged from a small brace of hanging game and fish to elaborate depictions of assembled hunting and fishing equipment.
Until late in the century American sporting adventures had been confined mostly to the East Coast. As the new country expanded westward across the Mississippi, the great herds of buffalo became a new enticement for the American sportsman. Easterners boarded the train heading west, and the illustrative artist moved west to record life on the new frontier. By the end of the century, most of both eastern and western sporting scenes recorded were illustrations. Most major avant-garde painters, such as the tonalists or impressionists, were only depicting sporting subjects occasionally, in works whose central emphasis was color. (left: Joseph F. Kernan (1878-1958), Going Out, undated, oil on canvas, 36 x 28 inches)
At the turn of the century. one of the most powerful groups of illustrators was Howard Pyle and his followers, who were known as the Brandywine School. Pyle, Frank E. Schoonover, Newell Convers Wyeth, Frank Stick, and many other students of' Pyle, were a dominant force in illustrative sporting art of the twentieth century. Another small group of sporting artists emerged as American field trials developed. These artists followed the hunt trials, painting portraits of the champion dogs. Among the most important of these artists were Percival Rosseau and Edmund Osthaus, both of whom painted action portraits of dogs working in the field.
The twentieth century brought about a proliferation of sporting magazines and sporting and adventure books, and many artists devoted all their time to producing art for these new publications. Leaders among this group were Lynn Bogue Hunt, Aiden Lassell Ripley, Ogden Pleissner, Roland H. Clark, and Arthur Fuller. Some of these artists also began to produce publications of their own work in book form. (left: Chet Reneson, Tight Line, undated, watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches)
During the first half of the twentieth century, American sportsmen also began to realize that conservation of their natural resources and preservation of their wildlife needed immediate attention. Artist Ding Darling met with fellow sportsmen to discuss the plight of the American waterfowl, and with the support of other conservation groups, they persuaded the federal government to authorize the first Federal Duck Stamp, which Darling designed in 1934. Since 1935, a competition for artists has been held every year, and a Federal Duck Stamp has been issued. The idea has spread to encompass state stamps, waterfowl stamps, other wildlife stamps, and various international programs.
Following World War II, major conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited were founded. Another group of artists gave special attention to the vanishing big game. It was these conservation movements and awareness that created a steady market for the first true school of American wildlife artists. They worked continuously, painting wildlife in its natural environment and the sportsman in action. Their work was painted in high realism and set in natural surroundings, with a major emphasis on upland birds and waterfowl. (left: Frank Wilbert Stokes (1858-1955), Evening at Moose Camp, 1920, oil on canvas, 25 x 34 inches)
American sporting art has long been a secondary field in the history of American art, but its popularity in the twentieth century has given it a place of some importance. Where early American sporting art concentrated on the landscape as primary, contemporary American sporting art uses wildlife as the central theme and the landscape as secondary. With galleries around the country promoting and exhibiting wildlife art and sporting art, the field of American sporting art is evolving into a major force in its own right. (left: Edwin F. Bayha, The Tip, 1912, oil on canvas, 23 x 36 inches)
See our magaine's sections on equine and wildlife art:
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11
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