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June 03, 2003

Rungius, Hunting and the Roots of Art


I’ve written a couple postings on the topic of the “primitive” issues that lurk underneath our modern notions of aesthetics. I didn’t expect to visit this topic again but I ran smack into it in the art of Carl Rungius. I caught an exhibit of his work—the largest ever assembled—at the Gene Autry Museum. (I should note that the show was organized as a traveling exhibition by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, which contributed the lion’s share of the paintings.)

I’d heard vaguely of Rungius (pronounced “Rungus”) before. When I was in art school, I got very interested in drawing animals at zoos, and spent some time learning about wildlife art. My impression of Rungius was as an animal painter from the era—the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th –when not-quite-Modern artists were still trying to blend academic drawing with Impressionist color. In other words, Rungius was a rough contemporary of the California Impressionists, Joaquin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent, who just happened to paint animals in the woods. Rungius, along with the Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors, also seemed to form a link in a chain between the Barbizon animal painters of the mid-19th century and 20th century American wildlife artists like Bob Kuhn and Robert Bateman.

As far as it went, this was correct. But that understated the truth by a lot. Carl Rungius—who was born in Germany and educated in Berlin—actually single handedly transplanted the very German tradition of Jagdmalerei (the representation of hunting scenes and game animals) to America. And, because at this very moment hunters (including Teddy Roosevelt) were creating the modern notion of conservation, Rungius also invented modern American wildlife painting, albeit more or less by accident.

But I don’t want to focus on the social role of Rungius’ art in this post. Rather, I want to focus on a disturbing quality in his art that I first noticed in this drawing:

C. Rungius, Skinned Feline, 1893

The label next to this drawing politely informed me that Rungius had hunted stray cats in order to obtain specimens for these anatomical studies. (Apparently there was some family background in taxidermy.) I could understand the passion of an animal artist to learn anatomy by dissection—not an ambition for the faint of heart, but fairly common since the Renaissance—but I have to admit the idea of deliberately stalking domestic cats struck me as a trifle outré.

I took a closer look into his biography, and discovered that it wasn’t the artistic opportunities of America that lured this German artist to America—it was the opportunity for hunting big game! According to Dr. Karen Wonders in her essay, “Big Game Hunting and the Birth of Wildlife Art” in the show catalogue:

By the end of the nineteenth century, hunting in Germany, for the average citizen, was an activity carefully controlled by local authorities who granted access to the land and by scientists responsible for managing the state forests and game animals. For an enthusiastic young hunter like Rungius, the romantic notion of the American Wild West provided the prospect of a far more attractive and bountiful hunting ground. Rungius had become an excellent marksman during his military training in the Prussian army, and was anxious to put his skills to the test. In 1894, he eagerly accepted an invitation to visit his uncle in New York City and accompany him on a moose-hunting trip [to Maine]…

Rungius not only went moose-hunting in Maine, he also visited Wyoming on the same trip, and apparently decided to emigrate on the spot. The hunting must have really impressed him, as his family did not take his decision well—they apparently felt America was a land utterly lacking in culture and sophistication. And his decision cost him financially, as well, as he seems to have struggled for a decade or so, largely earning his living as an illustrator for hunters and naturalists (he went on a “scientific” expedition to the Yukon in 1904 as staff artist.) And even when he broke through as a painter it was in the context of hunting and animal trophies: his first exhibition was at the 1906 Sportsman’s Show in Philadelphia. At his 1909 exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in New York (where he seems to have found the hook up with his wealthy hunter-patrons) his paintings were displayed beneath stuffed moose and elk trophy heads.

C. Rungius, On Yukon Waters, c. 1907

Rungius really found his path in 1910, when he visited the tourist town of Banff in Alberta and fell in love with the Canadian Rockies (in part, of course, because the large trophy animals that had been hunted out of America could still be found north of the border.)

C. Rungius, Lake McArthur, c. 1925

In a burst of brilliant lifestyle innovation (I sure wish I'd thought of it), he contrived to spend his summers painting landscape studies in the Canadian Rockies and his winters creating finished paintings in New York, a pattern he kept up for the next 47 years. And during the months he spent each year in Canada, while he wasn’t knocking off sensitive studies of the local landscape, he was out in the woods shooting at animals (occasionally with a camera, but more often with a gun). As he himself remarked, Rungius had the good fortune to have a single-track mind.

C. Rungius, Head and Side Views of a Rocky Mountain Goat, n.d.

Rungius’ life history may well let us see something that too many lessons in art appreciation and too much focus on aesthetic issues may have blinded us to: the primitive roots of image art. Rungius himself seems to have viewed himself as being in the “trophy painting” business—that is, helping wealthy hunters to memorialize their animal victims as they were in life. Obviously, this explains what might be called his economic role, but I can’t see it as a complete explanation. The whole intensity of Rungius’ personal involvement with hunting suggests that more urgent psychic matters were involved.

Cave Paintings from Lascaux, 13,000 - 15,000 B.C.

Certainly, the Lascaux cave paintings suggest that the origins of “animal art” were apparently in magic or religious rituals presumably intended to promote success in the hunt. And “the hunt” had never been simply a matter of getting enough to eat. (Hunting, particularly hunting large animals with primitive weapons, is rarely a terribly efficient way to feed yourself.) No, I suspect that taking symbolic possession of the vitality of the magnificent alpha animal, wielding the power of life and death, and ostentatiously displaying male sexual fitness had a lot to do with making the chase one of humanity’s most ancient rituals.

C. Rungius, Late Fall on the Clearwater, c. 1946

And I believe that something akin to “the hunt” underlies all forms of visual art. In all its forms, visual art is a sort of exercise in possession through seeing. It goes beyond a “male gaze;” the “art gaze” is a greedy gaze, a lustful gaze, a devouring gaze. The landscape painter clarifies and purifies the visual clues we have concerning the world around us. The animal painter clarifies and purifies the visual clues we have concerning the action, structure and pulsating life of the creatures of that world. Looking at good art makes us feel as if we can touch (and eat and control and have sex with) the power of nature itself, augmenting the power of the nature inside us.

So is Rungius’ art disturbing? Well, it disturbs me. But I suspect that it is that very quality that makes it worth looking at closely—because it makes us also look closely at our own appetites for sex, for food, for life and possibly for death.



posted by Friedrich at June 3, 2003


Fascinating, thanks. For one thing, I've always found the wildlife-art genre interesting, but know little about it past the Audobon obvious. Any more such art-history lessons in you?

As for the appetites-and-painting thesis -- very provocative, and very Friedrich. (I say this admiringly.) Eager to see you continue with this kind of thinking. Does it hold with all the arts, do you think? And does it hold with all painting? The Wife and I saw a show of Asian ink painting a few days ago. I think it'd be hard to argue that the kind of pointed sexuality and aggression you discuss vis a vis Rungius -- who, by the way, I'd never, ever heard of, shame on me -- plays much of a role there. But maybe it does. Or maybe it plays a different kind of role.

You've got me thinking now about not just the usual eroticism-and-art topics, but the specific topic of the variety of forms that eroticism can take...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 3, 2003 10:12 AM

Those who are responsible for the moose credits have been sacked. Thank you.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 3, 2003 11:05 AM

What does that mean, Yahmdallah? I must be missing something.

Posted by: Deb on June 3, 2003 8:30 PM

It's a python joke, I think. Movie has a long crawl of nonsense credits with moose remarks, then a line about "those responsible...."

Where's the line between the male gaze (and we don't know, I think, who painted Lascaux) and just general curiousity?
Not saying that this is required, but wonder if the blowhards have spent any time having to know what animals, wild and domestic, are up to. I've found that my take on representations of creatures, from cave paintings to pottery to modern art like blue dog, is very much like the view of people who train animals, and our views are completely surprising to the rest of the world.

As an example, the book of the dead has an image of a young ox kicking over its traces. Seemed amusing to me, and to everyone I know who’s worked cattle. All the art and history people were calling it tragic and dramatic.

I mean, my feet hurt when I see how the Rocky Mountain Goat is stepping in the side view. The curve of his spine and the position of his feet illustrate a landscape. It's stunning. (By the way, what’s the size of the original?)

Posted by: j.c. on June 4, 2003 2:12 AM

j.c.--thank you. I have been looking at the labels under the paintings wondering what in the heck he's talking about....which now strikes me as more amusing than the orginal joke!

What always catches my eye in these sort of paintings is that the artist paints the animal in a state of alert. The few times I have seen moose in the wild, they were not staring majestically off into the distance with their heads high unless they were listening...presumably for predators. He's painted them sighted in, either just before the shot or while waiting for them to turn just a bit to get the target area he needs to take them down.

Posted by: Deb on June 4, 2003 7:03 AM


Jc is correct; it's a monty python reference.


Didn't the author of the essay that spawned the "male gaze" concept discredit her own paper, saying she no longer agrees with what she wrote. I seem to recall Camille Paglia writing about meeting her and her expressing regret that she'd even wrote it.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 4, 2003 2:21 PM


Based on what I read in the catalogue to the exhibition, you are completely correct; Rungius' hunting pictures are chiefly focused on the instant just before the hunter pulled the trigger.


I don't know how large the sketch of the Rocky Mountain Goat is, but generally Rungius' field sketches weren't that large. Of course, occasionally he did sketches at a larger scale from dead animals propped up in a life-like pose or from stuffed specimens.

I guess the weird thing for me--not someone with a whole lot of experience with working animals or wild animals--is how much liveliness Rungius manages to infuse into these paintings. But that's the point I'm trying to make: how much emotion and desire humans can and do project onto images of animals, even when it involves utterly lifeless intermediaries like decaying carcasses, photographs, etc. In short, that there's some not very closely examined psychic mechanism at work here that clearly plays an enormous role in the whole mental economy of art.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 4, 2003 2:50 PM

"...the second before the hunter takes the shot."

That just makes these painting horrific to me. I agree with you---they are disturbing.

Posted by: annette on June 4, 2003 9:56 PM


actually, the more I look at them, the more I like them...particularly the mountain goat one. But then, I live with hunters. Not the trophy hunter types--I see that as a waste of resorces and time--but the "laid back, spend some time in the woods and bring home some meat for the table" type. I dont see what's horrific about them at all. Why do you say so?

Posted by: Deb on June 5, 2003 9:04 PM

I guess it's horrific because of the contrast---the painting of the lake, or the painting of the moose by the lake---actually seem sort of peaceful and celebratory of nature to me. And then to realize the impending violence...I shudder. It's sort of like seeing those pictures of John and Jackie Kennedy at Love Field in Dallas, smiling, shaking hands, and knowing what was to happen a couple of hours later. The innocence of not knowing what's coming, compared to the audience who knows what's coming. I want to shout to the Moose to run, or jar the hunter's gun or something.

Posted by: annette on June 6, 2003 9:59 AM

But...after living in Texas for six years, I realize I am no fan of hunting. And I even like several of the hunters. But the whole concept of hunting just seems like such a rigged game in favor of the hunters (I don't exactly get the concept of it as 'sport'. As someone once said, if you want to make it a fair fight, hunt a bear with a bowie knife, not a gun). My heart goes out to the poor beasts. Maybe I saw "Bambi" too often as a child.

Posted by: annette on June 6, 2003 10:03 AM

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