How many 8-year-old boys decide to make it a lifetime goal to paint every bird
in North America? Rex Brasher, born in 1869 in the Bronx, set this challenge for
himself. His father was an amateur ornithologist who introduced his young son to
a love of birds, and told him of a snub he had endured at the hands of the very
successful painter John James Audubon. Despite having an appointment, the
great man refused to see him, and, from the doorway, Rex’s father could see a
dead bird suspended from a string serving as his model. Rex, outraged on his
father’s behalf, vowed to paint every bird from life, better than Audubon.
Rex spent many decades learning about birds and their habitats and how to
paint them. He was a self-taught artist and a perfectionist who destroyed the
entire body of his work twice before he was satisfied with the results. His 874
watercolors of North American birds in their native habitats include 1,200
species, over 3,000 individual birds, and 350 species of trees and shrubs.
Brasher sketched his birds from life, and from these sketches and field notes, he
painstakingly created a masterful collection that he sold to the State of
Connecticut in 1941. Rex’s expectation was that the paintings would become
permanently exhibited in a museum funded by the state. For many years they
were exhibited at the Harkness Museum in Waterford, CT, but curators became
alarmed at the damage being done to the fragile watercolors by the salt air and
temperature changes and in 1988 removed them to conservation storage at the
University of Connecticut in Storrs, where they remain.
Rex led a colorful life vagabonding across the country, financing his travels by
playing the ponies, dodging eager prospective fathers-in-law and would-be
murderers as he honed his skills as a painter. Like many of the great American
artists of his era, Rex personally documented through his paintings a country that
was still mostly wild and unsettled. Indeed, many of the birds he painted, along
with their habitats, are now extinct.
In 1911, he purchased an old farm on the Connecticut-New York border that he
dubbed “Chickadee Valley,” where he did much of his finished work. In 1928, he
began work on a massive 12-volume set of hand colored prints, Birds and
Trees of North America, which included his descriptions and observations of
each bird. By using an air-brush technique and employing local people to help
with the backgrounds, he was able to produce approximately 90,000 prints.
Rex Brasher’s paintings were exhibited in the Great Hall of the National
Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. He illustrated numerous books and
articles, and wrote Secrets of the Friendly Woods. He was one of the founders of
the Kent Art Association.
T. Gilbert Pearson, President of the National Audubon Society from 1910-1940
said, “Brasher’s bird paintings are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
When you see a Rex Brasher bird you have seen the bird itself, lifelike and in its