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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bruno Liljefors

Eluding the Fox, 1912, Bruno Liljefors               
Bruno Liljefors, Self-portrait
Of all the content areas in painting today, few people realize that the delicate art of wildlife painting may be one of the most recent developments. Most people's knowledge of such art begins and ends with John James Audubon. That's certainly a fine artist with whom to start. However Audubon worked almost two-hundred years ago. A lot of wildlife as come and gone in that period; but not that many wildlife artists. I could give you a lengthy list of outstanding practitioners and I dare say you'd not recognize even one--Edwin Landseer, John Ruthven, the Ken Latham family, or Bruno Liljefors. Landseer was largely a studio wildlife painter, while Ruthven and the Lathams are contemporary artists still working today. The Swedish artist, Bruno Liljefors, was born in 1860. He died in 1939, making his paintings something of a bridge between wildlife artists such a Audubon, who was sort of a scientific illustrator, primarily an ornithologist (one who studies birds), and those we think of today as wildlife artists in the broader, more general sense.

Kestrel at Nest with Chicks, Bruno Liljefors
Steglitsor (detail), 1888, Bruno Liljefors
Bruno Liljefors (I'm sorry, but I haven't a clue how you pronounce his last name) was a lifelong hunter, which raises the dilemma of his possibly being torn between shooting his prey or sketching it. Judging from the mounted animals in his studio (below) it would appear he may have done both. But humans are not the only ones who hunt. Many of Liljefors paintings feature foxes, birds, cats, and other animals hunting their prey as well (top). His work is dramatic in that sense. Even now, his paintings are among the very few depicting animals of prey doing what they do best. Yet there is not the slightest hint of romanticized death or exaggerated violence. He painted in a somewhat impressionist mode but with a very nature-oriented sensibility. Their beauty in our eyes derives from the animals themselves, not from their struggle for survival.

Liljefors' atelier at Osterbybruk displays a small part of his collection of mounted birds.
Capercaillie, 1888, Bruno Liljefors 
Bruno Liljefors was born in the small Swedish town of Uppsala (just slightly northwest of Stockholm). He trained at the Royal Swedish Academy of the Arts, most of his works dating from the late 1880s and thereafter. At the time, most wildlife artists painted from mounted taxidermy specimens. Liljefors did too, amassing an impressive collection over the years, but he also kept a considerable menagerie of live animals with whom he seems to have had an affinity, their "posing" for him almost as if they were intent on earning their keep. By the same token, Liljefors was criticized by some for using recently killed birds as models, propping them up outside in natural settings, essentially creating "still-lifes" (or deaths) from which to paint. He especially loved painting Capercaillie (right) and often used this approach, mixing mounted and unmounted birds in creating a single painting. Liljefors' Capercaillie (right) from 1888, is much closer to the Audubon tradition than his later work (below).

Grasander, Bruno Liljefors
One of the more interesting elements in Liljefors' art is his fascination with the protective camouflage of the wildlife he painted--feather patterns, white rabbits skimming across the snow (below, left)--often to the point one has to visually search his paintings for a moment in order to see his subject. At the same time, around 1900, Liljefors work became darker, more brooding (above), coinciding with turmoil in his personal life as he left his wife and took up with her younger sister (must have made for some tense family reunions). Despite this, not all of Liljefors paintings were of wildlife. Mixed in were winter scenes such as Sledding (bottom) and paintings of the family cat sleeping (below, right) or hunting mice. I suppose one might call such work "tamelife" paintings?

Sleeping Jeppe (detail),
Bruno Liljefors (tamelife?)
Winter Hare with Gardesgard
(detail), Bruno Liljefors

Sledding, Bruno Liljefors


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