Arthur Singer: An American Master

Arthur Singer: An American Master

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By Paul Singer

Arthur Singer’s (1917-1990) career embodied a place where art and science could meet on equal terms and flourish.  The timing was right for this American artist who grew up by coincidence on Audubon Avenue in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in the early 20th century.  Singer mastered his skills to describe the reality of nature, but he did not develop his reputation as an artist overnight: that came gradually with a procession of books, prints, and even postage stamps.

From a very young age Arthur was attracted to drawing and painting animals and birds and by the time he was in his teens he had already begun to sell his artwork.  A few years after graduating from The Cooper Union, he had his first solo exhibition hosted by The Bronx Zoo’s Heads and Horns Museum – it was 1942 and World War ll was underway.  Arthur had met and married Judy (Edith) Goulfine who was a gifted artist studying at The Cooper Union, and then came the day that the U.S. Army came calling…

The concept of camouflage was invented in the first years of the 20th century by another bird artist, Abbot Thayer based on his observations of protective coloration in nature.  During World War ll, Arthur Singer joined a battalion of men, later dubbed “The Ghost Army”, and they used camouflage and other methods of deception to deter and mislead our enemy.  Toward the later part of World War ll when they were deployed, their efforts proved successful.  The men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops included artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, the photographer Art Kane, and fashion designer Bill Blass as well as sound engineers,  theatre people and the future bird artist, Arthur Singer.

Once the war was over, Arthur returned to New York to start a family, with a salaried job in an advertising agency, while at night and on weekends he would practice his painting.  To succeed with wildlife art it was a necessity to be outdoors and be able to identify the flora and fauna. Singer had studied examples by American wildlife artists Louis Agassiz Fuertes and John James Audubon, and he had also made friends with ornithologists like Roger Tory Peterson, John Bull and Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy who had set standards for the study of birds in the wild.  Arthur wanted to paint portraits of all the birds to be found in the United States aware of the plight of some species, like the Ivory Billed Woodpecker that had recently gone extinct.  This was an urgent mission made more palpable when Arthur completed his books: “Birds of the World” and “Birds of North America”, published by Golden Press in the early 1960’s.

Arthur worked with ornithologists who checked his artwork for accuracy and he became a member of the AOU or American Ornithologists Union.  When he was making paintings of birds he used his considerable skills as a designer to create a beautiful layout of pages for his books bringing into play light and shadow and a strong concept of form for each bird.  Arthur studied in the wild, he took his paints along with his camera when he went off on his many trips, to national parks and distant lands.  He paid close attention to the environment in which he places his subjects.

Today, if an artist were to paint a picture of a bird in flight, he or she might refer to a video of the bird and freeze the frame to get a better idea of the attitude and placement of feathers and forms.  In my Singer’s studio, he relied on his knowledge and his studies made from life to compose his paintings. Visitors to our show will find a good example of this in a painting of a Golden Eagle flying over sage brush in the southwest.  Arthur had painted watercolor studies in Utah and Arizona of the background to supplement his artwork.

During the 1960s Arthur Singer produced illustrations for his field guides to the United States, and for Britain and Europe, and they helped to bring about a change to a more naturalistic way of looking at and identifying birds in the wild.  “Birds of the World” had been translated into eight languages and was brought out in a second edition.  Many of Singer’s illustrations were painted in gouache on paper or board, while his larger paintings on canvas were usually painted in oils or acrylics.  The illustrations for books had a certain factual style while the paintings on canvas were more open to the exploration of the medium he chose.

Singer and his wife were both active as artists taking the family to galleries and museums from a very early age.  Many family trips were also to national parks with hikes in the Grand Tetons or out along the coast of Maine.

In the early 1980s Singer’s eldest son, Paul, worked with his father on a series of very popular postage stamps that featured the birds and flowers of the fifty states.  Arthur painted the birds while Paul was responsible for doing the flowers.  They sat next to each other and designed each of the stamps and produced finished art – one for each week that they worked on this project, until they were able to deliver the full set of fifty.  Hundreds of millions of these stamps were printed and sold, making their collaborative artwork one of the bestselling series to be issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

Singer passed away in 1990 but never lost his love for art, jazz or birds.

Arthur’s sons, Paul and Alan, will be hosting a reception on Saturday, June 15 at the Center from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The reception will feature a book signing for Arthur Singer: The Wildlife Art of an American Master and a tour of the exhibit. It is free to attend.