Rex Brasher, American (1869 - 1960)

Rex Brasher
Known as Connecticut's 20th-Century Audubon, Rex Brasher was born in 1869 in Brooklyn, New York, and as a youngster became fascinated with birds, largely due to the influence of his father, an avid naturalist and bird taxidermist.  In 1878, at the age of eight, Brasher determined to paint all the birds of North America from life--and better than Audubon.  He started painting birds seriously around age 16, but none of his early paintings has survived.

His determination to study birds in their natural surroundings took Brasher to all corners of North America.  He financed his first trip, down the east coast from Maine to Florida, by working as a photoengraver. Most of his other trips were financed by betting on horse races.  One of his most successful bets netted $10,000 and financed an extensive trip to the Midwest.  At one point, after losing most of his money on a bad bet, he took a job on a fishing boat.  He was then able to earn a living while studying and sketching sea birds.  During his years of artistic work he often found it necessary to make financial ends meet by doing laboring tasks of all kinds, including road building and house painting.

On his trips to the West, Midwest and Gulf Coast, Brasher traveled by train and on foot.  He lived both in the East and in Phoenix, Arizona, where he is listed as a resident in the 1940 Who Was Who in American Art.  Sometimes he walked the countryside for months at a time, stopping along the way to mail home his sketches and notes.  Between trips he painted in an apartment in New York City.  His determination to make his bird paintings as lifelike as possible, led him twice to destroy all of the paintings he had done, a total of at least 700 works.

In 1907, while studying the bird-skin collection of the American Museum of Natural History, Brasher met the famous bird painter, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who became his good friend and a major influence on his artistic techniques.  It was during this time that he learned new techniques for painting feathers that satisfied his artistic standards.

In 1911, Rex spent a $700 commission received for illustrating a book to purchase a 150-acre farm in Kent, Connecticut.  He called his farm Chickadee Valley.  It was there in 1924, after 47 years of work, that he finished his task.  Among his paintings were 1200 species and sub-species of birds listed on the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) Checklist of North American Birds.  Brasher's paintings included more than twice as many birds as Audubon's, who painted 489.  Brasher worked from direct observation and portrayed the birds in natural activities and habitats, including associated plants whenever possible.  He considered that his 874 paintings, which were placed on exhibition in 1932 at the English Book Shop in New York City, represented a completion of the work begun by John James Audubon.

In 1935, Brasher offered his paintings to the State of Connecticut, providing that a suitable repository could be found for them.  Three years later he took the pictures back after various attempts to raise funds for a museum in which to display them had failed.  The paintings were then sent to Washington, D. C. to be exhibited as Birds and Trees of North America in the Explorers Hall of the National Geographic Society.

Brasher wanted to see his paintings published but discovered that it would be far too expensive to print all 874 of his paintings in color.  To solve this problem he had the Meriden Gravure Company make black and white reproductions, which he then hand-colored using stencils and an airbrush.  The text was written by his niece Marie and printed by the New Milford Times.  The covers were made by a bookbinder on Long Island, and the volumes were assembled in a renovated barn in Chickadee Valley.  In all, 100 sets of 12 volumes were produced, including almost 90,000 hand colored reproductions.

In 1941, the State of Connecticut bought the Brasher collection for $74,000, storing it in the basement of the State Capitol in Hartford.  Twelve years later it began to exhibit the paintings in rotation in a large manor house bequeathed to the state by the widow of Edward S. Harkness at the Harkness Memorial State Park overlooking Block Island.

When decreasing funding at Harkness Memorial made it impractical to continue to exhibit the paintings there, a new home was sought for them at the University of Connecticut.  Through the efforts of Carl Rettenmeyer, founder of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and faculty member emeritus, ownership was transferred from the Department of Environmental Protection to the university, and the collection was deposited in the Homer Babbidge Library.  Recently, the collection has been inventoried, stored in acid-free conservation boxes, and relocated to the Dodd Research Center in an environment designed to preserve this unique body of work for generations to come.  The Museum of Natural History hopes one day to have an appropriate facility in which to exhibit selections from the collection on a permanent basis.

Rex Brasher worked until two years before his death, when his eyesight failed him. He died in 1960, at his home in Kent, at the age of 91.

Doris Dawdy, Artists of the American West, Vol. 2
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

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