These paintings come from an extensive series that encompassed a wide variety of birds in various seasons, including songbirds, shore birds, birds of prey, passerines and woodland birds. Steffen typically presented male and female pairs, but sometimes portrayed a single bird. He favored backgrounds that show the birds’ in their typical habitats. The skies are generally in a variety of rich and beautiful hues of blue — sometimes a grayish or pale hue for winter scenes. These backgrounds emphasize the vibrancy of the plumage through color contrasts that lend the birds a lively, three-dimensional presence.
Earnest William Steffen was a noted painter of American birds, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was a member of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union and frequent contributor of essays, pen-and-ink illustrations and color plates to their quarterly journal Iowa Bird Life. His interest in birds began as a boy growing up in Grundy County, Iowa — at the age of 11 he undertook the ambitious project of drawing a representative of each genus of North American birds; this took him a few years to complete. He studied art at Iowa’s Cornell College, graduating in 1915, then served overseas in World War I, surviving an injury that resulted in the loss of several ribs. Around 1932 he embarked upon a series of oil paintings and pencil drawings of the more common birds in Iowa. From 1934 to 1956, Steffen worked as a special education teacher in the Cedar Rapids schools, and during the summers, he and his wife traveled extensively, visiting national parks where he would sketch the birds. By 1944, Iowa Bird Life described him as “a bird artist of ability and is fast gaining a reputation as such” and noted he had completed over 120 oils and between 300 and 400 drawings in his Iowa bird series and was still adding to it.
Steffen relied on methodical observation of living birds, as opposed to museum specimens, and designed his family’s house to attract “the birds in order that we may better observe them.” In 1953 he wrote that a bird artist “must know birds. A casual acquaintance is not sufficient. He preferably should have years of careful observation of birds in the field, so he may know how each bird looks in its normal activities.” Steffen’s standards were high and a bird picture did not leave his studio unless it both captured the bird accurately and succeeded aesthetically as a work of art. After retiring in 1956, Steffen and his wife purchased a cabin in Minnesota on Lake Superior, where he made an extensive series of paintings of the local birds.
During his lifetime, Steffen exhibited his paintings throughout the United States, in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Columbus and Omaha, and gave lectures to nature enthusiasts. Steffen also provided illustrations for the book Birds of South Dakota, published by the South Dakota Ornithologists Union. His paintings are in the permanent collection of Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the Charles H. MacNider Museum in Mason City, Iowa. His papers are in the collection of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Condition: Each generally fine overall, with little or no wear; apparently not before circulated or hung. Some with brown paper tape hinges on back from former mounting.
“An Iowa Bird Artist.” Iowa Bird Life. Vol. 14, 1944. pp. 5-6.
Brunner, Dorothy A. “Obituary: Earnest W. Steffen.” Iowa Bird Life. Vol. 51, No. 1. March 1981.
Steffen Earnest W. “Birds at My Studio Window.” Iowa Bird Life. Vol. 15, 1945. pp. 22.
Steffen, Earnest W. “Iowa Owls I Know.” Iowa Bird Life. Vol. 14, 1944. pp. 2-5.
Steffen, Earnest W. “Those Pen-and-Ink Drawings.” Iowa Bird Life. Vol. 23, 1953. pp. 58-60.