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A Brush with the Wild: The life and art of Charles Livingston Bull, Part I.

America’s premiere wildlife artist and illustrator, Charles Livingston Bull (1874-1932) made his home in Oradell, Bergen County, New Jersey.

By Kevin Wright©2012

Are you watching live pictures from Mars? Not so very long ago, much of our own planet with its many strange and wonderful life forms was virtually unknown. That was before fingertip access to the Internet from almost anywhere was even imagined. It was also a time before we could invite wildlife into our homes with the flick of a television channel and relatively cheap air travel had not yet brought far-off destinations so much closer to our doorstep. In those days, eager eyes instead peered into zoo cages and natural history museum dioramas to goggle at wild beasts and exotic beauty, momentarily transporting onlookers to a tropical rain forest or arctic tundra.

And remember books? How readers once thrilled to action-packed, dramatically illustrated adventure stories, where the elemental forces of nature stormily and metaphorically contested? Well, for the first third of the twentieth century, a quiet (and some say shy) man from Oradell, New Jersey, was our eye on the world of nature. In an illustrious career spanning thirty years, Charles Livingston Bull sketched and painted his way into most American households on the covers and pages of best-selling books and magazines. His soft brush vivified danger at every anxious turn of the wilderness trail or soothed complacency with comforting scenes of the flora and fauna that companion suburban life. In the tradition of Japanese masters of pen-and-ink wash, he seemed to capture the very spirit of the wild creatures who inhabited his canvases. As an admiring Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Bull is the only man who can put legs on four sides of an animal and make it look natural.”

The story of Charles Livingston Bull begins in the rural hamlet of West Walworth, New York, on the outskirts of Rochester, where he was born on May 25, 1874, the son of fruit agent Johnson Cornelius Bull and his wife, Harriet Amelia Warner. His father was a Civil War veteran, who had enlisted with Company D, 186th Regiment of New York Infantry, in August 1864, shortly before his eighteenth birthday, and thereby collected a hefty bounty of $1,000 from his hometown of Rutland, New York. Johnson C. Bull fought in the decisive siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and was discharged in June 1865, soon after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. The following year, J. C. Bull married Harriet Amelia Warner and tried his hand at farming along the Erie Canal in Macedon, Wayne County, New York. According to a census of the Town of Colden in Erie County, compiled on June 15, 1875, Johnson and Hattie Bull resided in a plank house with their infant sons, Schuyler and Charles. A farm laborer named Darius Kellogg, his wife Anna, and their infant daughter, domiciled under the same roof.

Johnson and Harriet Bull eventually had four sons, neatly spaced two years apart, starting with Schuyler Warner, born in 1872; followed by Charles Livingston, born in 1874; Harrison Wilbur, born in 1876; and Carleton Clifton, born in 1878. Johnson Bull was listed as a produce seller, residing at 13 Conkey Avenue, Rochester, New York, in 1876. He worked as a salesman in Theodore Aldrich’s fruit and produce market at 116 State Street in 1880, becoming a partner in the firm of Theodore F. Aldrich & Company the following year. He moved his family to 87 South Union Avenue in 1880, where, at the tender age of four years, Charles supposedly first displayed an uncanny talent for drawing backyard wildlife. In 1882, his father parted company with Aldrich, opening his own wholesale fruit and pickle market at 144 East Main Street, selling “Oysters, foreign fruits, Nuts, Canned Goods, Oranges, Lemons, Sweet Potatoes, etc.” Two years later, in 1884, Johnson C. Bull worked at Francis Alexander’s retail grocery at 201 Monroe Avenue, taking over the business at this address in 1885-86.

Johnson C. Bull reportedly frowned on art as an unprofitable career and his artistically gifted son, Charles, was apprenticed at twelve years of age to Professor Henry Augustus Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, where he learned to prepare skins and to mount taxidermic specimens. He reportedly started out with the smelly job of scraping fat from animal skins, earning $3 a week. If so, Charles likely witnessed Ward’s preservation and mounting of P. T. Barnum & Bailey’s famous circus elephant, Jumbo, who died in a collision with a locomotive in 1885.

Coming Soon: Part II, Henry Ward’s Natural Science Establishment

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Ask yourself—Just how valuable are the lessons of history? If you enjoyed this article, then please consider joining the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, founded in 1902. We are dedicated to preserving important evidence of the past and promoting historical literacy through interesting programs and publications.

 

We don't receive public operating support or grants the way other groups do, but rely entirely upon private donations, membership dues and volunteer contributions of time and talent. We are presently trying to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate historical museum building and library for Bergen County on the Society’s property at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661. For further information or membership application, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org

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