Thursday, September 2, 2010

Schwartz Exhibit: A Must-See

Mark your calendars for this if you appreciate any of the following: nature, the outdoors, biology, critters, conservation, fine art.

From September 10 through January 2011, original artwork by Missouri’s master wildlife artist Charles W. Schwartz will be on display for anyone to see. For free. It behooves you to jump on the early end of this exhibition. Details at the bottom of this post.

Of course, you can’t talk about the artwork without describing the artist and his lifelong interests.

Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz

If you grew up in America during the last sixty years or so, you have probably seen Charles Schwartz’s artwork. His sketches, drawings, and paintings appear in innumerable publications, including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the environment), and a bazillion publications by conservation organizations. His art is copied all over the Web, too, sometimes without any credit. It’s just everywhere.

Charles Schwartz worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation for forty years, serving as biologist, author, wildlife photographer, and wildlife artist. His wife, Elizabeth (Libby), also worked for the MDC, as a biologist, author, and photography assistant. They worked for the MDC during its golden years, providing real wildlife education to the public, conducting groundbreaking research, and creating several award-winning nature films, over a dozen books, and numerous articles for both scientific and popular audiences. Schwartz’s art is still commonly used in MDC publications.

Perhaps the couple’s greatest achievement is The Wild Mammals of Missouri, which presents all the information you would want to know about each species of mammal in the state. It first came out in 1959, a copublishing arrangement with the “Missouri Conservation Commission” and the “University of Missouri.”

Every twenty years or so, it’s time for an update. The Schwartzes created an immensely popular revised edition that was published in 1981, and then Libby Schwartz—a widow by this time—prepared a second revised edition, copublished in 2001 by the descendant organizations of the originals: the University of Missouri Press, and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The Wild Mammals of Missouri

If you live in Missouri, there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has a copy of one of the editions of this book; for decades it’s been a best-seller for the University of Missouri Press.

Since its debut in 1959, The Wild Mammals of Missouri has been required reading for anyone who wants to learn about the state’s mammals. Missourians purchased this book as a matter of course, just as they purchased their copies of Peterson’s guide to Eastern birds and their Denison wildflower guides.

As the authors said in the preface to the first edition: “The Missouri Conservation Commission has long recognized the need for such a reference as this, and it is because of the Commission’s interest that this book was written.” Much of the material was published first, in abstracted form, in the Missouri Conservationist magazine, the MDC’s broadest outreach publication.

The language is formal in an encyclopedic fashion, not chit-chatty, but it is not overly technical. Anyone with a high school or college education can understand it. With its wealth of interesting information, it is valuable to both professionals and “lay” people. But the illustrations! They make the volume truly stand out.

The Artwork

That is what this exhibition is about: Charles Schwartz’s artwork. I understand that much of the exhibition will be works Schwartz created for The Wild Mammals of Missouri. This original artwork is held in the collections of the State Historical Society, which is sponsoring this exhibit.

Foremost are the official portraits that Schwartz created for each species—in the book they are numbered as “plates”—these are fully rendered, incredibly detailed, full-body drawings of each mammal, in a natural setting. The eastern gray squirrel, for instance, is depicted on a tree limb—and boughs of a white oak tree form a backdrop. These painstakingly rendered, flawless portraits ought to be enough to draw you to this show.

Next, there are the more technical illustrations—easily skimmed over by the nonspecialist, but deserving of more than just a second glance. These are the closeups of forepaws and hind feet, teeth, skulls, jaws, track patterns, scats, and other details that help one to really identify a mammal. These detailed works prove that each of Schwartz’s illustrations are taxonomically and anatomically accurate.

Finally, there are numerous vignettes that show animals engaging in characteristic behaviors and other fascinating scenes. A hibernating ground squirrel, all curled up in its burrow. An owl flying off with a limp mouse. A rodent negotiating a power line. A hairless newborn eastern mole, even more blind than the adult. An opossum toting leaves in its tail. A fox with a deceased chicken in its mouth. Some of these vignettes will make you chuckle; others are sobering; all are truthful.

In these small scenes, Schwartz often betrays his personal feelings about the animals. A scene of a bobcat pawing playfully at an overturned tortoise shows us he identifies with the animal’s curiosity and thrill of discovery. A scene of a house mouse leaping from a drawer, and human hands frozen in a gesture of surprise, captures a startled fear we can all identify with. And when we see these same hands cradling a young cottontail or sleeping baby raccoon, we know he feels warmly toward these vulnerable innocents.

By taking the time to study and to render these scenes, the artist lets us know it’s okay for us to feel the same way. Not many science illustrators are able—or permitted—to venture that far today.


In guidebooks, there are tradeoffs with using photos or illustrations. Many enthusiasts prefer photos, since photos provide literal views of the animal in question. And today, from the publisher’s viewpoint, photographs are much less expensive and easier to obtain than original artwork, keeping publication costs down.

But illustrations have definite strengths—the animal can be shown in a typical pose that also allows all the diagnostic characteristics to be visible, and clear. Nonessential characteristics can be downplayed, and key characteristics accentuated.

And then “artistry” can come into play. This is what makes the difference between a perfectly good, purely technical illustrator, and someone like Charles Schwartz. This is how a guidebook can transcend its role as an identification guide, and become a record, a testament, of the species.

Have you seen those awesome prints by Audubon, in his Birds of America? In them, Audubon captures more than the beauty, more than the plumage, physiques, anatomy, and colors—he captures each bird’s personality. His prints are so valuable today not because they are technically accurate—but because they are sheer treasures, emotionally moving works of art.

Schwartz’s artwork is in the same category—he captures the soul of his subjects; he makes them come alive. Most of the time, his animals are unaware of your presence and are acting out their natural behaviors—sometimes playfully, sometimes ruthlessly. On other occasions, they stare right into you. In either case, there is no candy coating. Each animal is true to its own wild self.

Go to this exhibit—before it all goes back in a drawer.

Here’s What You Need to Know

The exhibition opens on Friday, September 10, with a ticketed event, 3–8 p.m., at Columbia’s Bass Pro Sportsman’s Center. Proceeds benefit the State Historical Society of Missouri, which holds a collection of over 500 Schwartz drawings and studies, sculptures, and paintings. Tickets are a measly $10, and there’ll be guided tours by the people who know the most about Schwartz’s art, with wine and cheese to boot.

Then, Saturday and Sunday, September 11 and 12, the display remains at Bass Pro. There will be tours, landscape and wildlife art and photography seminars, and conservation educational activities. Bring the kids.

Then, the exhibit moves to the State Historical Society’s Main Gallery, located in the Ellis Library building on the University of Missouri–Columbia campus. It will remain on display through January 2011.

After that, it goes back into protective storage. So don’t miss this, okay?

For more information, contact Laura Wilson at the State Historical Society: 573-884-7904 (; and be sure to look at this official website:


All the pictures in this post are horrible, horrible photographs made from my copy of The Wild Mammals of Missouri, Second Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, 2001).

I’m including these pictures as samples—partly to illustrate my “review,” but mainly as an incentive for you to go see the real things at this exhibit. The original art, held at the State Historical Society of Missouri, is much, much better!


Anonymous said...

I have an original ink by Charles Schwartz that was given to my mom when she worked at the conservation dept, any idea how I could find out what it is worth

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Anon,

I don't know how to go about determining the value of original artwork for sure, but I have some ideas:

1. Talk to the State Historical Society of Missouri, based in Columbia, which holds the lion's share of Schwartz's works. They might not go so far as to give you a valuation, but they can probably give you better advice for obtaining it than me. You might ask specifically to talk with Joan Stack, the curator of art collections at the SHS.

2. People get artworks appraised for insurance purposes all the time. Maybe you should talk to your home insurance representative for advice.

3. Private art galleries are accustomed to deciding on prices for artworks. You might contact one that specializes in nature art, vintage art, or pen and ink illustrations.

4. Check out online auctions to see if you can find similar works, particularly by Schwartz, that have sold.

Schwartz was prolific and widely known. I think that the Conservation Dept. and the State Historical Society of Missouri own most of his works, so it might be rather unusual if you have a large, fully rendered work in private hands. But I don't know that for sure. I would contact Joan Stack, first, as the expert on Schwartz's art.

Thank you for commenting,