2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
Ben Austrian is not a household name even in many quarters of his native Berks County, Pa., yet he achieved both national and international fame as an artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Reading, Pa., in 1870, to a German-Jewish immigrant father and a mother from Philadelphia’s prominent Drexel family, Benjamin Franklin Austrian was a sickly child who found the inspiration for some of his best-known artworks while spending summers on a farm near Kutztown, Pa., for his health. It was there that Austrian developed a particular affinity for poultry after seeing a hen leading her brood down from the haymow. This inspired him to begin painting the hens and baby chicks that would become the favorites of locals and Europeans alike.
When interviewed about his choice of subject matter in 1900, Austrian replied simply, “I paint chickens because I love them.”
In 1997, Ben Austrian’s grandnephew, Geoffrey Austrian, a Harvard graduate, published a book titled, “Ben Austrian, Artist” (Garrigues House, Lewisburg, Pa.) which describes the artist’s life and career and includes many of his paintings.
After trying his hand at his family’s dry goods and steam-cleaning businesses as a young man, Austrian decided to make art his career. He eventually assembled his own flock of chickens and taught them to pose so he could paint them from life. Austrian raised his own hens from hatchlings so they would bond with him. His poultry models were given names such as Coal Black Lady, Dame Julia and Dame Pauline.
The popularity of his poultry portraits was likely attributable not only to the subject matter and his almost photographic likenesses of them, but also to his distinctive style. Austrian’s oil paintings are noteworthy for their oftentimes dark backdrops that tended to highlight his feathered subjects. His skill working in oil paints belied his lack of any formal training in the arts.
In his adult life, Ben Austrian and his wife, Mollie, resided in the Neversink Mountain area near Reading (coincidentally, the old log house where they lived had briefly once been the home of Daniel Boone — another Berks County native). While Austrian maintained a studio at this residence, his favorite place to spend time and paint was his summer home, known as “Clovelly-at-Pinnacle,” near Kempton, Pa., in northern Berks County. Though this location was only a little more than 30 miles from his home, it was a world away in terms of the inspiration he found there. Kempton is the place where he was eventually buried after he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1921, just 51 years old and at the height of his creative career.
Austrian’s paintings first found favor when he worked as a traveling salesman for his father’s business while still a teenager. He would offer customers one of his pictures as an inducement for their purchases and his renown grew from there. He won a $100 prize in 1895 from the National Horse Show Association for his “After the Race” painting, and when his “A Day’s Hunt” was exhibited at a Philadelphia gallery in 1889, his career as a successful artist took off.
Displaying his versatility as an artist, young Austrian started out doing portraits and still lifes, such as his large trompe l’oeil painting of ringneck pheasants killed by a hunter who has strung them up on the back of a door. The pheasants are done life-size and painted with such realism that even the iridescence of their feathers is perfectly captured.
By 1900, Austrian had begun to focus his artwork on chickens, in what would become his “poultry period,” though he also painted other animals, such as puppies, kittens, rabbits and even a lion. As his artwork gained in popularity, Austrian began to exercise an uncanny business acumen that increased his favor among collectors even more. The enterprising artist branched out into making lithographs of more than 30 of his original pieces of artwork and selling these prints, which made his paintings accessible to a much wider audience. Today, there are art enthusiasts who specialize in collecting these vintage prints which Austrian produced during the first decade of the 1900s.
The artist’s success in the U.S. led him to Europe, where in the first decade of the 20th century, he had successful showings in Paris and London and had studios in both cities for a time, as well. His painting, “Golden Harvest,” was purchase by the Walker Museum of Art in Liverpool, England, further cementing his international renown.
Austrian also did advertising artwork during his career. In fact, one of his best-known drawings can still be found on the shelves of modern supermarkets a century later: Austrian was the creator of the baby chick shown in advertisements and on containers of Bon-Ami scouring powder along with the slogan, “Hasn’t scratched yet.” Some early Bon-Ami advertising art also depicted a housewife; it was an image for which his wife, Mollie, served as the model.
In the latter years of his life, Austrian began traveling to Florida during the winter months, where he continued to paint at his studio in Palm Beach. Austrian’s forties marked a growth period in his artistic style, which led him to doing tonal landscapes that met with much approval among collectors.
Valerie Malmberg, gallery director of Greshville Antiques and Fine Art in Boyertown, Pa., is recognized as the leading expert and appraiser of Ben Austrian works and has handled hundreds of his pieces during the past 30 years. She uses words like “moody, emotional and soft” to characterize the new style that emerged at the end of Austrian’s career.
“Berks County art is my passion, and Ben Austrian is the leader of the pack,” said Malmberg, who has a personal collection of Austrian memorabilia. According to Malmberg, originals of Austrian paintings can sell for amounts ranging “from several thousand dollars up to six figures,” depending on their quality, condition and composition.
Noting the popularity of Austrian’s work in Berks County and beyond, Greshville Antiques and Fine Art selected five different images of Austrian paintings and filed with the Library of Congress to be able to reproduce prints of these works and make them affordable to a wider number of Austrian admirers.
Malmberg said Austrian was a highly prodigious artist, and it is not known exactly how many paintings he produced during his relatively lengthy career. Attempts to catalogue his artworks have been handicapped by the lack of titles for many of his paintings, as well as the similarity in subject matter that can make it difficult to distinguish between the many poultry portraits he produced.
Examples of Austrian’s paintings are on display at the Historical Society of Berks County, 940 Centre Avenue, Reading, Pa. During early October each year, Greshville Antiques and Fine Art hosts a week-long show and sale of works by Berks County artists, prominently including paintings by Ben Austrian. For information, go to www.greshvilleantiques.com or call 610-367-0076.