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Artist Biography

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1870, Ben Austrian was encouraged by his mother to draw and paint. Because of his poor health as a child he spent a large amount of his time on the family farm. While there, he became fascinated with a hen leading her chicks down from a hay mound which inspired his life-long fascination with farm-yard fowl. His love for hens and chicks is shown in his paintings of them (as well as rabbits, dogs, kittens, and quail). These works were sentimental, realistic, and sold very well. For some reason, he seldom or never painted roosters.


After attending school in his hometown, he started working as a traveling representative for his father's business, a job that allowed him to visit museums in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and St. Louis. When his father died in 1897, he took over the family steam laundry business but soon sold it, gave the profits to his mother, and pursued a career as a painter. He once said, “make a success in my art or die in the attempt.” His mother supported her son' s new vocation, which may partly account for Ben's loving depictions of mother hens and their chicks in his paintings, which were 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.

He quickly became very successful, and one of his first paintings was acquired by the Philadelphia department store magnate John Wannamaker for his personal collection.

In 1902 Austrian went to Europe and opened a studio in Paris; his work was acclaimed in both France and England where in London he was acclaimed "The Landseer of Chickens."


After his return to the United States, he established studios in Reading, as well as in Palm Beach, Florida, where he and his wife spent the winters. He also had a summer home in the mountains near Kempton in Northern Berks County, Pennsylvania.

One of Austrian’s best known ventures was his series of advertisements for the Bon Ami Company, many of which originated as paintings that featured chicks accompanied by his wife Molly, posing as a housewife, who always used the cleanser with the slogan "Hasn't Scratched Yet". The trademark chicks are still used by the company. During his life he was praised as "the most realistic portrayer of feather life ever known”.

Austrian's remarkable career was ended prematurely by his sudden death in 1921 at the age of fifty-one.

A retrospective of his work was mounted by the Historical Society of Berks County in 1982. At the same time, Judy M. Hartman published an article on the artist in the spring 1982 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.

References:

Geoffrey D. Austrian: Ben Austrian, Artist, Pennsylvania, (Laurys Station, PA, Garrigues House Publishers, 1997); a very similar work is illustrated p. 36