Book Review

Ben Austrian, Artist

By Geoffrey D. Austrian
Laurys Station, PA: Garrigues House Publishers 610-261-0133
ISBN: 0-9620844-8-4
Hardback with color reprints of paintings. 120 pages. $45. Orders of 5 or more copies $27

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

Ben Austrian, Artist

Ben Austrian, Artist is "the first biography of the artist whose painting of a newborn chick became the celebrated trademark of Bon Ami Cleanser nearly a century ago." Author Geoffrey D. Austrian wrote this book about his great uncle, Ben Austrian (1870-1921), after viewing a 1990 exhibit of the artist's works at the Reading, Pennsylvania Public Museum & Art Gallery.

I first started using Bon Ami Cleanser back in the 1980s, on learning that Bon Ami was not tested on animals. Its trademark is a newborn chick who "hasn't scratched yet." This trademark became all the more meaningful to me after I started United Poultry Concerns in 1990. However, I had no idea that the Bon Ami chick was the brain child of the admired turn-of-the-century artist from Reading, Pennsylvania, Ben Austrian.

I learned this recently, when Geoffrey Austrian sent me a review copy of his book Ben Austrian, Artist, accompanied by a letter in which he wrote, "I was delighted to learn of your organization since my father's uncle, Ben Austrian, had a life-long love affair with chickens and spent his career painting their portraits. His best-known one of a newborn chick, 'Hasn't Scratched Yet,' became the trademark of the Bon Ami Company 100 years ago. Ben's parents sent him to the family farm because he was a sickly youngster. While there, he became fascinated with a hen leading her chicks down from a haymow."

Ben Austrian, Artist tells the story of this self-taught artist's struggle to escape from the family's steam laundry business, and "make a success in my art or die in the attempt." His mother supported her son' s vocation, allowing him to sell the business and in other ways encouraging him, which may partly account for Ben's loving depictions of mother hens and their chicks in painting after painting, based on his direct observations of these birds in his studio coop and elsewhere. "I paint chickens because I love them," he told a newspaper reporter in 1900.

Ben's love for hens and chicks shows in his paintings, of which twelve appear in this book along with a full-page black & white photograph, "Ben Austrian Painting Hen on Chair." His paintings of chickens (and other animals including rabbits, dogs, kittens, and quail) were both sentimental and realistic, and they sold well. For some reason, he seldom or never painted roosters.

Unfortunately, although Austrian was an "animal-loving artist, who probably never hunted for anything more than a paint brush," he began doing "game trophy paintings for masculine dens" in 1896. These "door-sized" oil paintings show dead birds and other animals strung up together following a day's hunt. In one painting that appears in the book, for example, 23 ducks painted from frozen models--mallards, pintails, widgeons and a spoonbill--hang against a barn door. For such images of carnage, Austrian was praised as "the most realistic portrayer of feather life ever known."

Utterly dispiriting as these trophy paintings are, they and the accompanying story show a side of American life at a time when sport hunters were killing everything in sight in keeping with the notion that, as Life magazine still proclaimed as late as 1937, "Fun with a gun is the constitutional right of every American" (Dec. 6, 1937).

As the carnage of the poultry industry occurs on a scale that dwarfs all hunting, this book may convince those who have not yet washed the blood of chickens out of their diet to do so now. Ben Austrian's chickens are more that "icons of a fast-receding agricultural age" that was never romantic anyway. They remind us of the crime against the family life of chickens embodied in every bite of a hen's egg and a chicken's breast. We may gasp at the discrepancy between Ben Austrian's loving portraits of living birds and his willing depiction of so many wantonly killed ones, but this inconsistency occurs in essence every time that an "animal lover" sinks a knife in a feathered friend.