Peabody exhibit features bird paintings by famed wildlife artist

A painting of egrets in a tree.
A reproduction of Albert Earl Gilbert's painting "Egrets in Cypress" will be on view as the featured image in "An Artist for Conservation."

The beauty and majesty of birds — from hawks to hornbills — through the eyes of one of the world’s most notable wildlife artists are explored in a new exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Featuring more than 25 original pieces, “An Artist for Conservation: The Paintings of Albert Earl Gilbert,” on view through April 15, features completed works as well as original field sketches and notes to illustrate the process behind the artist’s vision.

A Connecticut resident, “Gil,” as he is known, has traveled the globe in search of subjects to paint in their native habitat, many of them in remote, hard-to-reach areas. He braved deadly snakes in the Amazon; climbed Eagle Hill in Kenya with Leslie Brown, the renowned authority on eagles and other birds of prey, where he learned how to dodge charging rhinos; and ascended Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, one of the world’s most important biological sites. Roger Tory Peterson called Gil “one of the half-dozen best wildlife artists in America.”

Six watercolors in the exhibition are tall (roughly 40- by 60-inch) compositions inspired by the long vertical scrolls with flowing vegetation common in Asian art. These paintings include “Great Blue Turacos,” featuring the African birds resting on a staghorn fern; “Ward’s Trogon in Bamboo,” depicting what Gilbert describes as the most beautiful bird in China; “Whitehead’s Trogons,” featuring a male and female pair found on the hike up Mt. Kinabalu; and “Shadow Owl,” showcasing a boreal owl from the North American boreal forest.

Also on view in the exhibit is “Resplendent Quetzal”, a depiction of the sacred bird of the Mayans and Aztecs, which Gil discovered in the high-cloud forest of Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas is also where he found the critically endangered horned guan, depicted in the watercolor “Horned Guan-Cloud Forest.”

I was the first American artist to see and sketch one,” says Gil, who notes that watercolor is a perfect medium for the tropics because the paint dries quickly even in high humidity.

The show features the oil paintings “Great Hornbills” (depicting a courtship feeding in which the male provides a ripe fig to the female), which the artist created in Malaysia, and “Black Eagle’s Realm,” which is set in South Africa. Other works on view include “Harpy Eagle,” set in the Amazon jungle and painted in acrylic with oil highlights; the acrylic “Florida Sky with Osprey,” of a mother osprey feeding her youngsters while the father bird stands guard high above; and “Egrets in Cypress,” which depicts two stately white egrets against a periwinkle sky. This painting, the exhibition’s featured image, is displayed as a reproduction, as the original is too immense to include.

Gil’s lifelong dedication to conservation is also explored in the exhibition. His painting “Hooded Merganser,” rendered in opaque watercolor, was the winning entry in the 45th Federal Duck Stamp Contest in 1977 — his first time entering. The stamp, first issued on July 1, 1978, bore the caption “Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.” Selling for five dollars and valid for one year, it generated well over $11 million, which supported the Department of Interior’s Federal Duck Stamp program to acquire wetland habitat and protect not only waterfowl but all wildlife. The stamp and a signed print are displayed in the exhibition.

A postal stamp featuring a watercolor painting of a Hooded Mergancer.
The artist's watercolor of a Hood Mergancer was featured on a federal stamp issued in 1978 that generated more than $11 million in support of a government program to acquire wetland habitat and protect wildlife.

Audubon Hawk Chart,” which Gil regarded as his most important painting, is included in “An Artist for Conservation.” Produced and distributed widely by the National Audubon Society to school classrooms, libraries, nature centers, parks, and sportsmen’s clubs, it resulted from a collaboration with environmentalist Roland Clement to inform the public of the dangers of the pesticide and carcinogen DDT, an alarm sounded in the 1960s by Rachel Carson’s landmark publication “Silent Spring.” High on the food chain, hawks and other birds of prey were becoming endangered by ingesting fish and other wildlife infected with the chemical. Finally banned in 1972, DDT had caused eggshells to be too thin and fragile for healthy chicks to survive. Birds of prey have since a made a comeback, and the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list.

Gil began drawing by the age of three, using Crayola crayons. His parents took him on frequent trips to the zoo, where he was captivated by all of the exotic creatures. His mother said she never needed a babysitter because her son was so engrossed in his love of painting and illustration. As a teen, sometimes skipping school, he took trips to the zoo or hikes in the woods to pursue his passion with subjects he could paint firsthand — lions, tigers, bears, and especially birds. He believed early on that he must know his subject before rendering it on canvas.

After brief stints in college and as a park ranger, Gil took a job at the Field Museum in Chicago, where he illustrated his first book. His apprenticeship over many years as a freelance animal artist for the Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History helped hone his painting skills.

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, located at 170 Whitney Ave., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.  It is closed Monday with the exception of Columbus Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Presidents Day. On the first Thursdays of each month the museum is open until 8 p.m. Admission is $13 adults; $9 for seniors; and $6 for children ages 3-18 and college students with I.D.  From September through June, admission is free 2-5 p.m. (2-8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month).

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