Taxidermy: It's Transition into a Highly Refined Art Form

Arden Creek Designs was commissioned by The Smithsonian Institution to mount a chewing beaver for their new exhibit on the history of felt hats. Taxidermy gained refinement and popularity during the mid to late 18th century, a time period also is known as the “Golden Era” of the Adirondacks Mountains. A new phenomena was taking place in the country at this time, developments and conditions were coming together to generate a new found interest in nature and the undeveloped wilderness. New York City, south of the Adirondacks, was crowed, sanitation was poor and the deadly decease, tuberculosis was spreading out of control. The cities residents wanted to escape and go to where the air was clean, dry and cool. New and improved means of transportation were transforming and for the first time making it easier in allowing people to leave the cities and experience wilderness areas. Society was awakening to the beauty of nature and the outdoors. Artist in numbers were painting wilderness scenes, these artists collectively became known as the Hudson River School. The demand for their painting grew as the desire to bring the outdoors into their home to brighten up their walls.

Another art form that society was embracing nature was to bring mounted birds and animals into their homes. Having taxidermy mounts in homes was very popular, as the demand grew, more and more taxidermy shops sprang up around the country. Displaying taxidermy mounts in homes and establishment was very desirable and fashionable. As the demand grew so did the means of preserving the skins. Great strides were made in the early 20th century to create figures that were anatomically accurate, giving attention to every detail. No longer were the poses crude, stilted and unrealistic, now they were creating interesting, dramatic action mounts, appropriate to the specie.  The settings in which the mounts were placed were more authentic and realistic.  Some of the taxidermist who were instrumental in transforming taxidermy into a highly refined art form were Coleman Jonas, William T. Hornaday, Leon Pray, and Carl Akeley. 

Museums across the country were using taxidermy as a means of gathering, preserving and recording extensive collections of specimens; it was also a means of preserving extinct and threatened species. Museums created their own taxidermy departments, staffing them with the most gifted and talented taxidermists available. Carl Akeley was one such individual. He was hired by the Chicago Natural History Museum to build its collections; Akeley liked to do his own collecting so he could personally insure the care and quality of the specimen. On one such expedition in Africa he encountered a leopard, before he could fire his gun the leopard attract him, fighting for his life, Akeley shoved his arm down the attacker's throat and tore apart the leopard's insides, killing the animal. The acids inside the leopard’s stomach were so strong that they ate away the flesh on Akeley's arm, terribly disfiguring his arm, leaving him scarred for life. 

The art of taxidermy continues to improve and develop. The advancement of new technology to track and record the behavior and surroundings of birds and mammals provides new understand and deeper accuracy in depicting the animals, enhancing the realism and bring it to life.