What you see: White Hen with Chickens, painted in 1913 by American artist Ben Austrian. Freeman’s estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.
The expert: Raphaël Chatroux, associate specialist in the fine art department at Freeman’s.
Who was Ben Austrian? What do we know about him and his work? He’s a local boy, born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania. He had a lonely childhood, and he was sick very often. The air in Reading was quite polluted, so he had to spend his summers outside the city at a relative’s farm. He called it his vacation home. He went there for many years, from his early childhood until his mid-teens.
And he was self-taught, yes? Yes. Not by choice, but by necessity. Austrian’s family was very poor, and they didn’t have the means to send him to art school. At the age of five, his parents gave him a box of watercolors. During the summer, he was by himself and experimented with it. At an early age, he knew he wanted to become an artist. His mom was supportive, but his dad was wary. It was hard for a local artist to break through. He wanted him to work in the family business, which started as a dry-goods shop and evolved into a steam laundry. Austrian always painted on the side.
How did his career evolve? The first phase is from his early years until his father dies when Austrian is 27. He did have a few successes. He was very persistent in trying to show his art, though he wasn’t able to devote himself to it full time. His dad dying was a wake-up call to sell the family business and devote himself to art.
Did he paint hens and chicks exclusively? No, but it’s what he started painting in the very beginning–he painted what he knew. The first things he painted were chickens and landscapes. He painted other animals, such as ducks and horses, and at one point, his cat paintings were as popular as his chicken paintings. As he aged, he turned solely to landscapes.
And when he was a kid on the farm in the summer, he would feed the chickens? Exactly. He grew up surrounded by them. In a letter, he said, “I paint chickens because I love them.”
Was Austrian prolific? Do we have a count of how many works he made? There’s no catalogue raisonné. It’s hard to estimate the number of paintings he did, but he was prolific. It’s in the thousands. It’s difficult, too [to get a more precise count], because he wasn’t so good at keeping track of all of them, especially the early ones. A lot of the paintings are very similar, with similar names, like Mother Hen and Chicks. It’s tough to establish a chronology and an exhaustive summary of what he did. In the 1900s, he started putting dates on paintings.
Was he well-known in his time, or did his reputation grow later? He was well-known while he was alive. He was considered a Reading celebrity and he was smart about it–he was able to create a business out of it. When he worked for his dad, he knew to paint an original before meeting one of his dad’s clients. He was very strong-headed, and he did everything possible to break through. His partnership with the Bon Ami Company helped a lot. It assured his legacy, and it’s part of why he’s famous today. They made reproductions [of his works] that people could have on their fridge or in their wallet.
In reading about Austrian, I came across a claim that he taught his chickens to pose for him. Is that true? It seems crazy, but it’s true. You can find a lot of pictures of Austrian in his studio, surrounded by hens and chicks. He loved them. He talked to them every day, and he gave them names–some were elaborate. He raised them all on his own, so they only knew him. There was a special bond between the animals and Austrian. He had an incubator as well. [He did] whatever he needed to study their behavior and be as accurate as possible.
How did he teach chickens to pose for him? He always started by painting the hen first, and alone, because the chicks will always harass the mom. He’d put her in something like a nest, so she’d be quiet. With the chicks, the key to catching their attention was speaking to them–he could imitate their mom’s cackle. Or he’d use an object, like a piece of raw meat hanging from a stick. They’d gather round, infatuated with it, and that would give him a minute to catch the overall composition. Cigars would hypnotize them. They would freeze when they saw the light of a cigar. That would keep them quiet for a few moments.
In looking at the catalog for the sale, it’s clear that 100 years ago or so, there was a market for paintings of chicks and hens. I see several works by Austrian, and paintings of chicks by Mary Russell Smith and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. Who was the audience for these works when they were new? Who bought and collected them? I’ll start by saying Austrian was not the first one [to paint chicks and hens] and not the only one. He was late in the game. When Mary Russell Smith died, he was very much a kid. Because Austrian was self-taught, he didn’t copy from other artists, but it [scenes of chickens] was a popular genre of the time. There were lots of dealers who handled these paintings, and Austrian often chased private collectors himself. He sold a lot to department stores and jewelry stores, which saw art as a way to get people to feel comfortable and spend more money. Wanamaker’s [a Philadelphia department store] had a lot of Austrians, and John Wanamaker bought directly from him–he bought for himself and for his stores. It was a good source of income.
What detail of White Hen with Chickens do you like best, and how does it speak to Austrian’s mastery? It’s quite a good painting because you have a lot of chicks, which is what matters, and an imposing motherly figure that anchors it all. What I like is the composition itself. I like the contrast between the quiet mom and the undisciplined children. They’re running around, some are on her back, and some are about out of the picture frame, but mom doesn’t move. She’s self-composed. That’s what I like, the organized chaos in the painting.
Have Austrian’s paintings always been collected, or was there a fall-off after his death? I think he’s always been steadily collected. There was never really a fall-off.
How often do Austrians come to market? And is it unusual to have this many in a single sale? What’s unusual here is the collection provenance. They’re from the Bon Ami Company itself, which helped shape his legacy and his image. It’s never sold works by Austrian before. It’s an event for them to come up for sale. Bon Ami is a golden provenance for a Ben Austrian painting.
Why are they selling the paintings now? They’re reshaping their collection and taking a more curated approach. They’re not trying to get every painting linked to Ben Austrian. And it’s a good way to raise brand awareness of the company, through Ben Austrian.
So this is the first time the Bon Ami Corporation has sold any of its Austrians? They’re fresh to market.
And that’s why you’re comfortable selling several in the same auction–because of the Bon Ami provenance? Exactly. The Bon Ami name helps because it ties the collection together.
White Hen with Chickens measures 20 inches by 26 inches. Is that an unusual size for Austrian? I wouldn’t say it’s typical, but it’s on a larger scale. It’s the largest devoted to chickens. At 20 inches by 26 inches, the birds are pretty much life size, which was something Austrian was well aware of. When hens are in the paintings, the paintings tend to be larger. When it’s just chicks, they tend to be smaller. It has to do with the emotions you’re supposed to feel. A small work with two chicks fighting over a bug is cute, and you can hold it in your hand. A hen is more serious. It has to be bigger, and it has to hang on the wall. He was very well aware of those visual tricks.
What’s the world auction record for a Ben Austrian painting? It’s a painting of a dog and a cat–no chickens–that sold at Pook & Pook in 2011 for $80,000. I dug a bit deeper and found the fourth-highest auction record is very similar to the White Hen with Chickens painting. It sold in 2004 for $40,000.
What is White Hen with Chickens like in person? What’s very nice about the painting is on one hand, you have a subject that’s very whimsical and cute–the children are agitated and the mom is quiet. It’s not a hen with chicks, it’s a mother and her children. That’s why you like it–he’s able to put humanity into the painting without being versed in sentimentalism. He’s very naturalistic in style, but he’s able to give some warmth to it, so it’s not kitsch. And if you look up close, the technique is perfect. The colors are not at all muddy or dark. They’re very pure, very bright, even though [the scene] takes place in a barn. For the chicks, he wanted something light and fuzzy, so he drew an outline and created a soft, sfumato-like blur, which gave that effect. You think it’s whimsical, but you can see the skills there. His technique is spot-on, and he learned it by himself.
How to bid: White Hen with Chickens is lot 48 in the American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists auction at Freeman’s on June 9, 2019.
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