Beauty Is a Vacation: Exploring the Works of Wildlife Artist Carl Rungius

Beauty Is a Vacation: Exploring the Works of Wildlife Artist Carl Rungius
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), “In the Clouds,” circa 1940. Oil on canvas. 30 inches by 40 inches. JKM Collection, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
11/30/2022
Updated:
11/30/2022

Why are human beings attracted to beauty? However we explain the pull, beauty draws us. It engages the eyes, tantalizes the intellect, and elevates the spirit. It reminds us of the excellence of nature, life, and creation. The effulgence of creation points to a marvelous creator.

Beauty offers a respite from the tedious; it transports us beyond the ordinary to something sublime. Beauty is a vacation.

The Beauty of Beauty

When planning a vacation, people don’t generally favor ugly places. We daydream about escapes into loveliness. Sitting at a sushi bar recently, I enjoyed the “oohs” and “aahs” of my children as our meal was prettily prepared.

Gratified by appreciation, the chef began to chat with the kids and me. He informed us that he had attended culinary school on the island of his birth, Bali.

“Do you know [it]?” he inquired proudly.

I had to admit we had never been, but we had seen pictures.

Who doesn’t know of Bali? The perimeter of the island may take a mere three hours to circumnavigate, but the quality of the coastline renders size inconsequential. Bali is famously beautiful. Still, our host spoke about the happiness he’d found half a globe away from his paradisiacal birthplace.

“I like it here. Florida has work and opportunity—pretty beaches, too,” he said.

Loveliness exists all over the world, in fascinating niches large and small. It can be found in food, the sea, the mountains, in our actions, and in the art that we make. Beauty is powerful and cathartic to the human person. It transports us beyond the ordinary, beyond the downtrodden.

Why else do people make art? The goodness and power of beauty constitute a noble impetus.

Carl Rungius, Wildlife Artist

Born in 1869, Carl Rungius is a fine historical example of man’s positive devotion to beauty, art, and nature. Like many great Americans, Rungius arrived in the United States from Germany as an immigrant. Moved by the natural appeal of the landscape, the ideals of American opportunity and independence paired perfectly with Rungius’s talent and determination, giving way to excellence.

Growing up in Berlin, Rungius was one of nine children born to Magdalene Fulda and Pastor Heinrich Rungius. The family enjoyed art, hunting, and taxidermy. Upon attending an exhibition of the work of German wildlife artist Richard Friese, the teenage Rungius became inspired to choose painting as his career. Wary of such a profession, his father insisted that the youngster apprentice as a house painter so that he could fall back on painting trim and walls should his artistic ambitions fail.

But Rungius was always intrigued by animals, and while training to paint walls, he dedicated much of his free time to sketching and studying the structure and movements of animals housed at the Berlin Zoo. He would also frequent the glue factory, though he considered it a most unpleasant undertaking. He viewed an understanding of animal anatomy as essential to his artistic designs.

Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), “Under Pyramid Peak,” circa 1935. Oil on canvas. 30 inches by 40 inches. JKM Collection, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), “Under Pyramid Peak,” circa 1935. Oil on canvas. 30 inches by 40 inches. JKM Collection, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), "Gray Wolf," Wyoming, 1927. Oil on canvas. 60 inches by 75 inches. Gift of the Jackson Hole Preserve, National Museum of Wildlife. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), "Gray Wolf," Wyoming, 1927. Oil on canvas. 60 inches by 75 inches. Gift of the Jackson Hole Preserve, National Museum of Wildlife. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), “The Humpback,” circa 1945. Oil on canvas. 30 inches by 40 inches. Edwina H. F. Cox, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), “The Humpback,” circa 1945. Oil on canvas. 30 inches by 40 inches. Edwina H. F. Cox, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)

In 1894, Rungius’s uncle, Clemens Fulda, invited him to join in a moose hunt in Maine. Though the trip was unsuccessful in terms of bagging moose, it proved to be life-altering in inspiration. Rungius’s eyes were opened to the beauty of the United States. In 1895, he visited Wyoming. The stunning mountain peaks, vastness of scenery, and abundance of big game led Rungius to say, “My heart was in the West.” By 1896, he immigrated.

Rungius’s entrance into the United States happened to coincide with an increasing awareness of the need for wildlife conservation. President Theodore Roosevelt turned national attention to bird reserves, game preserves, national parks, and the essential nature of good stewardship over the land.

During his early years in the country, Rungius’s refined knowledge of animal anatomy and skillfulness in the hunt brought him to the attention of William Temple Hornaday, the first director of the New York Zoological Park, known today as the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday helped Rungius to connect with wealthy patrons who guided his way to success.

He began to work as an illustrator for hunting and nature magazines, as well as on campaigns to preserve endangered species. Like many great hunters, Rungius and his colleagues became prominent proponents of proper land conservation and ethical hunting practices.

In 1909, Rungius, still a dedicated hunter, gave up illustration to become what he had long wanted to be: a fine artist. Some call Rungius a big game painter. He is, in truth, probably the greatest American painter of wildlife to date, but Rungius didn’t prefer to be characterized as a genre artist. He didn’t want to be known as an outstanding painter of wildlife, but simply an outstanding painter.

Wildlife was the niche of beauty that inspired his talent and productivity. At the end of the day, Rungius achieved his goal: He became a great artist, full stop.

Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), "Lake O’Hara," circa 1925. Oil on canvas. 40 inches by 50 inches. JKM Collection, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)
Carl Rungius (Germany, 1869–1959), "Lake O’Hara," circa 1925. Oil on canvas. 40 inches by 50 inches. JKM Collection, National Museum of Wildlife Art. (Copyright estate of Carl Rungius)

Seeking the Sublime in the Grand Tetons

This summer, it was my good fortune to visit Wyoming. My husband and I explored Grand Teton National Park. What a stunning landscape! Thankfully, the area remains well preserved by a series of parks and reserves kept pristine for the joy of all visitors. A fine and open park system is a gift facilitated by good stewards over generations. It’s the legacy of those who appreciate beauty and life.

Today, the Jackson Lake Lodge sits on the spot chosen by Theodore Roosevelt himself. Lucky to reserve a time and space within it, my husband and I saw more colors over Mount Moran than I previously knew to exist.

From the balcony of our room at dawn, we observed great birds, elk herds, and even a pale-haired wolf in pursuit of a cow moose and her calf. The moose acted aggravated; skirting through the tall grass below, a stalking threat came clear. The moose pair proved as tough for the stealthy predator to trap as they were a century ago, when Rungius pursued them with a paintbrush and easel.

Before we checked out of the awesome escape, we checked in with Gill Beck, the current director of hotel operations. He inquired about our stay and relayed interesting stories, including that years before, his parents had stayed in the very same Moose Pond Cottage suite we had stayed in. From the upper balcony, they had been startled by a sudden crashing through the bushes below. There came a scattering of elk, followed by a huge grizzly bear! The family has recounted the astonishing scene of the grizzly hunt evermore.

Nature’s beauty has a memorable effect. It refreshes one’s appreciation for life.

Beck also told us of the lengthy and meticulous efforts being made to preserve the Jackson Lake Lodge for visitors to come. A fine and historically faithful restoration is underway—but not in the way. Keeping to the original designs is well worth the effort. Rungius’s paintings still hang where they were first placed in the great lobby in complement to an incredible picture window. However, for the sake of proper preservation, the paintings there now are copies.

Beck directed us to find the originals just a few miles away at a museum in Jackson Hole. What a treat it was to find them!

Beauty Through the Years

The National Museum of Wildlife Art houses the largest collection of Rungius’s paintings in the United States. Within its walls, the museum offers a crisp and glorious view of the natural world, and how man is touched by it. It’s one of the most delightful buildings I have ever entered. Nestled into a mountainside and embellished with bronze statuary, it’s as if animals leap from without to within. The relatively small museum represents a sanctuary for the senses.

While on vacation in the United States, Rungius discovered a landscape that enlightened his imagination. He made a home of the august land, even though it came with long, harsh winters. In gratitude for the splendor about him, Rungius offered an ode to the North American outdoors, an ode to life.

The next time you’re in search of an elevated escape, consider the transportive power of paintings. Bright beaches are dazzling, and brilliant mountains are magnificent, but summer slips away so quickly, and travel isn’t always on the agenda. Inspiration is often closer than we think.

Beauty is a vacation, and it can be found all around you.

Andrea Nutt Falce is a happy wife and mother of four. She is also a Florentine-trained classical realist artist and author of the children’s book, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” Her work can be found at AndreaNutt.com
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