I discovered the work of Bruno Liljefors (1860 – 1939) in a 1978 article, Liljefors of Sweden: the peerless eye, in Audubon magazine written by Martha Hill. Thanks to Martha Hill for re-introducing his work here in the U.S. Unfortunately, his work is still under the radar to many natural history artists and illustrators. This is lamentable because his work is a much higher caliber and more sophisticated, in my opinion, than any natural history/bird painter that America has ever produced. His colleagues were the impressionists and he exhibited with them – not too shabby. His work is found in museum such as the Rijksmuseum (think Rembrandt) and the Musée d’Orsay (think Manet and Van Gogh). Heavy hitter.
I was fortunate to travel to Sweden in 1981 to experience his powerful pictures at the Thiel Gallery in Stockholm, the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, and the Gothenburg Museum of Art. His inspiring and often large scale paintings are sweeping panoramas of the wilderness – yet they often have intimate vignettes that connect the view and the viewer. No other artist renders fur and feather so dynamically within the context of the landscape. Indeed, the viewer feels the experience of being an integral part of the natural world. Bruno painted the hunt, the hunter, the hunted. He knew his subject matter intimately as he was a hunter and, apparently, was a falconer, too. Pretty cool, eh?
Beyond his excellent drawing and painting skills, a friend recently pointed out that part of his magic was how he transported the viewer into the wilderness and how he effectively conveyed the ephemeral: the cold, the wind, and the sea with these natural narratives. His painting skills/ his chops were up to snuff… no question as he was a deft painter with a light touch. His compositions were bold and inventive. Because he was influenced by the impressionists his work lacks the oppressive obsession with detail that boils the life out of much bird art. As Mies van der Rohe elegantly instructed us – “God is in the detail” and Bruno knew how to edit, select, and describe the essential detail. Contemporary bird painters and illustrators typically paint with water-based paints including myself. Liljefors painted primarily in oil, which is, let’s face it, exponentially more complex and demanding than watercolor. There are many artists today synthesizing aesthetics and conservation issues. Liljefors work seems to me to be utterly relevant for both conservationists and artists – why not look back a bit more thoroughly for inspiration from his work as we move forward?