Albert Gilbert

As a child growing up in Chicago, Al Gilbert would skip school to visit the zoo, where he spent his days drawing the animals in his sketchbook. Now, Gilbert is one of the world’s top wildlife artists, and his paintings of birds are on display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

A special exhibition, titled “An Artistic for Conservation,” is located on the third floor of the museum and features the works of wildlife artist Albert Gilbert. Two dozen bird paintings created during Gilbert’s expeditions around the world — from the steamy Amazon jungles to snow-capped mountains in East Africa — line the walls of the gallery, along with his manuscripts, illustrated books and earlier commissioned works, including a duck stamp that generated $11 million in sales for environmental conservation efforts.

“The theme of the exhibition is twofold: to highlight the importance of art to scientific research, but also to draw people’s attention to conservation efforts,” said Richard Kissel, director of exhibition and public programs at the Peabody.

Kissel said that Gilbert embodies this dual theme because of the instrumental role he has played in furthering the cause of environmental conservation by donating the proceeds from sales of his paintings and by raising awareness about endangered species through his artwork.

The inspiration for the exhibition, Kissel said, came from a conversation with Richard Prum, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology and the ornithology curator at the museum, who has collaborated with Gilbert for many years. Although Gilbert has painted many other kinds of wildlife, Kissel and Prum eventually decided after consulting with Gilbert to narrow the scope of the exhibition to birds, an area in which Gilbert has done most of his conservation work.

Director of Student Programs David Heiser said Gilbert stands out among other bird painters in that he does not confine his workspace to merely photographs and nonliving specimens.

On Oct. 19, Gilbert gave a talk about his exhibited works in the museum’s gallery. Heiser, who organized the event, said that Gilbert shared fascinating anecdotes about his expeditions around the world. Once, while he was painting in the Amazon, he was mistaken for a drug dealer by the Colombian police. In another case, a supply ship did not arrive on time, and his team had to cook a bird in order to survive in the jungle.

In an interview with the News, Gilbert recounted how he came to love art at an early age. As a child growing up in Chicago with intense passion for animal painting, he took advantage of his proximity to two zoos, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings of animals while “playing hooky from school.” He worked as a park ranger and museum illustrator before plunging into full-time wildlife painting. Although he never received a formal art education, he has achieved wide renown in his field. Among his mentors is James Perry Wilson, the creator of the North American diorama at the Peabody.

“It’s a great coincidence to see my exhibit of bird art just in the hall adjacent to where Wilson painted his diorama backgrounds,” Gilbert said. “When I want to remind myself how much more I have to learn, I just step outside my exhibit and looks at Wilson’s Sonoran Desert diorama.”

Throughout his career, Gilbert said he also benefited greatly from expeditions around the world that were sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, where he had the opportunity to work with pre-eminent ecologists.

The works included in the exhibition span Gilbert’s career. One such work is the “Audubon Hawk Chart,” which Gilbert created early in his career while working for the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit environmental organization. He said the chart was part of a nationwide effort to support Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” which revealed the detrimental effects of pesticides. In particular, Gilbert highlighted the fact that pesticides harm hawks.

Other works on display were more recent. One of them, completed just a few years ago, depicts the courting behavior of hornbills in Malaysia.

“I never could have painted a picture like that were I not on that museum expedition, seeing that incredible site and being able to make note of the habitat, plant life and so on,” Gilbert said.

While Gilbert has previously worked with the museum and borrowed specimens, this is the first time his works have been featured in an exhibition, according to Prum.

The exhibition opened on Sept. 2, 2017, and will run through April 15, 2018.

Malcolm Tang |