Roger Tory Peterson Paintings Highlight Christie’s American Paintings Sale

Christie’s New York announced the upcoming sale of twenty original paintings by the celebrated naturalist, artist, and educator Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996). Peterson’s best-selling field guides, beginning with his seminal 1934 book A Field Guide to the Birds of North America, have been a must-read for generations of ornithologists and bird-watchers alike. This selection of original paintings and works on paper, consigned directly from Peterson’s art studio, represents the largest selection of works by the late artist ever to be offered to the public.

Tropical Birds (illustration for The World of Birds). Original gouache on paper, 8 x 14.5 inches. Estimate: $15,000-25,000. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2010

Peterson’s field guides are credited with ushering in a revolution in bird-watching. At the time he undertook the production of his first book, bird-watching as an American hobby was still in its infancy. Though the quality of binoculars was improving, experts found it difficult to believe that hobbyists would ever learn to tell certain species apart by sight when in the wild. As noted by Smithsonian Institute Secretary Emeritus S. Dillon Ripley, Peterson “enabled even the most untutored person to identify birds; he showcased the unparalleled beauty of birds in his painting and photography, and by getting millions of people interested he has helped to guarantee the survival of birds.”

In recognition of his significant worldwide contributions to the environmental movement, Peterson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 – the highest honor awarded to an American civilian – and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first Field Guide, the Smithsonian Institution honored him with a major retrospective of his paintings and photography that was attended by five million people. Today, Peterson has 19 book credits to his name and has sold more than 10 million copies of his bird guides.

The 20 works by Peterson to be offered this fall form a cross-section of the artist’s most sought-after works, from large-format naturalistic scenes to brilliantly-colored, highly-detailed illustrations created specifically for inclusion in his field guides. Remarkably, Peterson did all the illustrations as well as text for his North American bird guides.

“Peterson was one of the few great wildlife artists to marry superb artistry with scientific accuracy,” notes Aviva Lehmann, senior specialist in American Paintings at Christie’s. “As brilliant works of art in their own right, the paintings and watercolors included here are inspiring examples of Peterson’s lifelong devotion to nature and discovery, and we are thrilled to be featuring them as a centerpiece of our sale this September.”

Lead highlights of the collection include Snowy Owls (estimate: $80,000-120,000) a rare large-format painting that measures over 4 feet square. Tropical Birds (estimate: $15,000-25,000), portrays a menagerie of brilliantly-hued exotic birds of South America, Australia, South Asia and Africa arrayed along the branches of a tree. In both of these works, as well as his Flamingos in a Landscape (estimate: $15,000-25,000), Peterson strove to portray his subjects in their natural environment – a compositional approach Peterson said was influenced by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the highly-regarded bird painter whose work Peterson studied in his youth.

Also featured in the sale are the original watercolors used to illustrate his bird guides, including Orioles & Tanagers (previous page, left; estimate: $7,000-10,000) and Thrushes (estimate: $7,000-10,000), both published in Peterson’s 1960 A Field Guide to Birds of Texas and Adjacent States. These page-sized illustrations often packed more than 20 varieties of each species onto a single watercolor, in order to better help the amateur birder identify male, female, and immature birds of a particular type by variations in size, plumage, and even molting stage.

Penguins (pictured right; estimate: $12,000-18,000) were among Peterson’s favorite bird families to paint and to photograph. Peterson himself – whose nickname among his birding friends was “King Penguin” – took seventeen trips to Antarctica starting in 1957, and was instrumental in documenting the continent’s indigenous birds, as well as the encroaching pollution that threatened their natural environment. He once noted, “Birds are far more than cardinals and orioles to brighten the garden. They are indicators of the environment – a sort of ecological litmus.”

After Peterson’s death in 1996 and that of his wife and collaborator, Virginia Marie Peterson, in 2001, a portion of the contents of Peterson’s art studio in Old Lyme, CT were donated to the Sea Research Foundation, which operates the nearby Mystic Aquarium. The artworks to be featured in this September’s auction were retained by the Peterson estate, and are now being offered to the public for the first time.

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