Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

His name isn’t exactly a household word. But chances are his century old creation – a plump little chick sporting a fancy French name – has been seen by countless homemakers in Pennsylvania, as well as throughout the world.

Revered in Reading, Berks County, and throughout southeastern Pennsylvania as “the chick painter,” Ben Aus­trian depicted a chick for Bon Ami cleanser which became his most important and lasting commission. His life, as brief as it may have been, was de­voted to the oftentimes elusive quest for beauty. He died at fifty-one in 1921 at the height of his career, an artistic span that lasted less than three decades.

The fifth child of Raphael and Fannie (Dierfoss) Aus­trian, prominent members of the city’s Jewish community and founders of its Congregation Oheb Shalom, Ben was born November 11, 1870. As a child, his delicate health kept him at home where he dabbled intently, often painting explod­ing volcanoes or scenes domi­nated by raging flames. His first set of watercolor paints was given to him when he was just five, a gift from a friend of his mother’s who recognized his preoccupation with paint­ing. His first paintings were nothing more than overpaint­ing pictures he found in old magazines and large format weeklies illustrated with line drawings and wood engrav­ings. His mother was known to have snipped sections of muslin from her ironing board which Ben substituted for crude canvas.

Because of poor health, Ben retreated to Bower Station near Reading during summers, where he discovered a spec­trum of multi-hued days in an old shaft. Mixing the clays with milk, he created a thick, paste-like paint with which he depicted primitive landscapes and chicks. The first painting to attract local attention was a scene from the Bible which he entitled Wedding Appointments. The painting was displayed in the window of a Reading store, in front of which the boy would often conspicuously linger, hoping to hear favor­able comments from passersby.

Although Ben’s parents owned a drygoods store and, shortly after his birth, ex­panded their operation, the young boy believed their mod­est means prevented him from devoting himself wholly to his art. In 1885, at the age of fifteen, he left school to work in his father’s store, then located on Perkiomen Avenue. After working for the family busi­ness for several years, he moved to Williamsport, Ly­coming County, to work as a salesman. Three years later, he returned to assist his father as a traveling representative. He helped promote the business by giving every person who placed an order – no matter how small – an original paint­ing. His early entrepreneurial spirit was to serve him well later with the important Bon Ami advertising campaign.

It didn’t take long for Aus­trian’s work to gain more than neighborhood recognition. His entry, Wedding Appointments, in Woerner’s Art Gallery’s second amateur art exhibition in 1893 drew acclaim from Reading’s newspaper columnists and art critics. Two years later the National Horse Association awarded him a one hundred dollar prize for his canvas entitled After the Race which later adorned the Netherlands Hotel in Manhattan.(tab)His travel was devoted to visiting museums and galleries in New York, Washington, Philadel­phia and St. Louis.

Nothing, or so it seemed, could stop the emerging painter.

Raphael Austrian died suddenly in 1897 at the age of fifty-six. Ben and a brother, Julian (later a New York pub­lisher), assumed control of the family-owned steam laundry. Forced to manage the laundry on a rigorous daily basis, Ben Austrian abandoned his be­loved painting, reluctantly yielding with it his fervent pursuit of beauty. He felt as if he had even lost his sense of purpose.

Sensing Ben’s increasing despair, another brother, Joe, sent him a brief but encourag­ing note accompanied by an essay entitled “Pushing to the Front, or Success Under Diffi­culties.” Buoyed by his broth­er’s support, he persuaded his widowed mother to sell the business and vowed to devote­ – once again – his life to painting.

Again, success came quickly.

One year later his painting entitled A Day’s Hunt was exhibited at Earle’s Art Gal­leries, a prestigious firm on Chestnut Street in Philadel­phia which catered to the city’s established carriage trade, as well as the newly rich. In 1900, Earle’s showed A Golden Harvest which, accord­ing to a turn of the century gallery catalogue, “confirmed the popular and critical judge­ment of his powers and artistic achievement at that time and won for himself fresh laurels.” The praise never ceased. After a South Wind, Austrian’s 1901 offering, billed as “the latest and most ambitious work which has yet appeared from his brush,” portrayed a bounty of twenty-three ducks hanging from a nail in a rustic barn door.

Art critic Edward Barber, in his treatise distributed by James S. Earle and Sons, fur­ther contended that, “The first and abiding impression which one receives in viewing these pictures of Ben Austrian’s is the feeling of their absolute fidelity to nature; the perfec­tion of illusion. The power of verisimilitude can go no fur­ther.”

Lauded by commercial galleries, Ben Austrian’s work found a ready – and appar­ently insatiable – following. James Hervey Sternbergh, one of Reading’s wealthiest indu­strialists, purchased A Day’s Hunt for twenty-five hundred dollars in 1904, an unprece­dented price for an Austrian painting at the time. The Walker Art Museum of Liver­pool, England, one of Eu­rope’s foremost galleries, purchased Golden Harvest. It wasn’t long into Austrian’s career that retail department store tycoon John Wanamaker of Philadelphia added a paint­ing, Coal Black Lady, to his private collection.

Austrian’s resounding American acclaim prompted him to seek a broader, albeit more critical, audience in Europe. Sophisticated Europeans flocked to his studio in Paris, which he opened in 1902, and the public apprecia­tion of his style and subjects resulted in his exhibiting works in the galleries of Henry Graves and Company, a Lon­don dealer whose posh show­rooms attracted the privileged and the titled. England’s aris­tocracy and discerning patrons, including members of the royal family, dubbed him the “Landseer of Chickens,” likening his skillfully executed paintings to those of Sir Edwin Landseer, probably the most famous painter in Victo­rian England.

Tiring of Europe, Ben Aus­trian returned to the United States, weighted only by the accolades heaped upon him by scores of patrons and thou­sands of admirers. He re­turned to a hero’s welcome: James Hervey Sternbergh gave two receptions in his honor. At the gala at the Mineral Springs Hotel, the iron mag­nate personally announced paying the record price for A Day’s Hunt. The second party was held at Sternbergh’s magnificent Centre Avenue mansion, Stirling, designed by noted American architect Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr., (1845-1928).

Upon his return, and with the tumult subsiding, Aus­trian returned to work and opened a new studio in a log cabin at Denglers, which he christened “Clovelly” for the English fishing village north­west of Exeter where artists had entertained him.

From Austrian’s brush strokes a panoply of animals tumbled onto the canvas. There sprung forth from the bristles Brittany spaniels and Jack Russell terriers, hares and jack rabbits, cats and kittens, even a luxuriously maned lion. And, of course, the chicks.

Ben Austrian’s penchant for painting chicks has never been fully explained, but it was one which can be traced to the early years of his artistic ca­reer. Even before he left for Europe, young Ben appropriated three hens from the fami­ly’s vacation farm which he kept isolated in his studio. The artist named his models Coal Black Lady, Dame Pauline and Dame Julia, and immediately enrolled them in his unusual modeling school where he taught them to pose. Art critic Gustav Korbe, a contemporary of the painter, wrote, “most artists who are not landscap­ists, paint from the human model, but Mr. Austrian has real live chickens for his. He has in his studio hens which he has trained to pose for him and chicks which are attend­ing as promising pupils, this curious school for artists’ models – probably the only school of its kind in the world.”

Austrian’s pupils were, indeed, promising. His por­trait, Coal Black Lady, depicting the large black hen, made its way into the Wanamaker col­lection. Dame Julia un­abashedly posed for Motherhood, a canvas which immediately garnered both popular and critical acclaim. It was only natural that, in time, the talent of Ben Austrian would be wedded to the rock­eting fortunes of Bon Ami.

While Ben Austrian hunched intently over his easel, the nation’s soap manu­facturers competed heatedly for the lion’s share of the lu­crative market. During the late 1880s, in Glastonbury, Con­necticut, the J.B. Williams Company was manufacturing several kinds of soaps, includ­ing Williams Shaving Soap, still being sold today. At the time, Sapolio – a cake of scour­ing soap consisting of finely ground quartz and tallow boiled with caustic soda – was the most famous cleanser in the nation. Much of Sapolio’s outstanding commercial suc­cess was due to the creativity and marketing genius of Arte­mus Ward, son of the popular humorist, who was as well known for his advertising acumen as he was for his arrogance.

The J. B. Williams Com­pany eventually attempted to compete with Sapolio, but failed. The company’s super­intendent, John T. Robertson, an experienced soapmaker born in Scotland, resigned from the company following a dispute with his employers. He moved to Manchester where he sought investors for his new concern, the J. T. Robertson Soap Company.

Robertson, encouraged by the residents’ support as in­vestors, decided to manufac­ture a cleanser to compete against the giant Sapolio. A member of the company’s board of directors – made up primarily of Robertson’s fellow townsfolk – was a minister named Burgess who was as­signed the task of giving names and trademarks to the dozen different kinds of soaps the company made. He named the firm’s scouring soap “Capitol” and christened the polishing soap “Bon Ami.”

Not long after the names were marketed, it became painfully obvious that the name Bon Ami was a poor choice. Housewives pro­nounced it “bonamy,” while grocers and clerks incorrectly called it “bon-aim-eye.” Clearly, it appeared that the J. T. Robertson Company was headed for disaster. However, William H. Childs, a principal shareholder, noticed that homemakers in his own neighborhood had tried Bon Ami and returned to their local store, asking for it by name, no matter the pronunci­ation. Childs realized that the new cleanser, ironically, did not have to compete with Sapolio, but only had to be marketed as a different prod­uct for different uses. Unfortu­nately, the company lacked financial resources for the ambitious advertising cam­paign necessary for Bon Ami to effectively enter the highly competitive market.

In a series of swift moves, the enterprising Childs per­sonally took on the marketing of Bon Ami. Young boys were recruited to distribute sam­ples, miniature versions of the standard cake, as they went from door to door. Storekeep­ers in these neighborhoods were induced to order stock in conjunction with the free sample campaign. It wasn’t long before Bon Ami – and quite unintentionally at that­ – loomed as Sapolio’s most dangerous competitor. Even Artemus Ward stormed the company’s shabby New York office and sternly reproached Childs for attempting to par­ticipate in a fickle market.

Childs ignored Ward’s icy warning and cautiously adver­tised Bon Ami in communities where the free sample cam­paign proved most successful. Eventually, he made certain that ensuing promotions were carefully planned and me­thodically carried out.

In 1903, William H. Childs sought out A. W. Erickson, an energetic young advertising executive who owned a small company, to assume the ad­vertising for other family­-controlled business concerns – but not Bon Ami. Advertising for Bon Ami was handled exclusively by a capa­ble bookkeeper named Soule, to whom Childs turned over much of the company’s man­agement. Competent in coor­dinating Bon Ami’s business affairs, Soule proved to be terrible at advertising efforts. Eventually, he relinquished the Bon Ami account to Erick­son, but he insisted on writing the advertising copy himself.

Erickson, eager to firmly place Bon Ami in the retail trade, commissioned a young Pennsylvanian, an aspiring artist, to develop an attractive trademark. The young artist was Ben Austrian; the trade­mark, one of his fat little chicks. Austrian’s chick ac­companied Bon Ami’s stand­ard advertising slogan, “Hasn’t Scratched Yet,” still in use to this day. But Austrian’s budding advertising experi­ence was threatened by the rather dull Soule who scrapped the chick and the slogan, replacing them with a crudely drawn duckling and a new tag-line, “Never Will Scratch.” A. W. Erickson ex­ploded, demanding the origi­nal chick and accompanying slogan remain unchanged. Soule retreated sheepishly. Eighty years later Bon Ami’s advertising vehicle remains true to Austrian’s original.

Bon Ami, Ben Austrian and Erickson were destined for unbridled success. Bon Ami captured a huge chunk of the market; Ben Austrian finally achieved recognition as an excellent artist; and A. W. Erickson founded the legendary New York advertising powerhouse, the great McCann-Erickson Agency.

Spurred by his initial suc­cess with Bon Ami, Ben Aus­trian embarked on a full-blown advertising cam­paign which soon included full page color spreads in magazines, and not just black and white display advertise­ments in newspapers. He immortalized his wife Mollie Auman as the typical Ameri­can homemaker in his large oil paintings which served as the magazine illustrations. He even organized the Ben Aus­trian Art Publishing Company of Reading, Pa., to satisfy America’s appetite for afforda­ble lithographic reproductions of his important originals. Soon his little chick began appearing on tins and boxes, post cards and trade cards promoting Bon Ami. Success was, indeed, his to cherish. But not for long.

Never a robust individual, Ben Austrian had, since boy­hood, spent summers in the countryside, far from the suffocating heat and strangu­lating smog spewed forth by Reading’s giant steel and tex­tile complexes. He began spending winters at Palm Beach, Florida, where he kept a studio and showroom at the opulent Royal Poinciana Ho­tel, and summers at a tiny cottage he purchased near Kempton in northern Berks County. Usually, the Austrians stayed at their home in the Mount Penn section of Read­ing during spring. A year or two before he turned fifty, Austrian opted to spend as much time as possible at the summer cottage. He loved the surroundings of the steep mountainside, particularly the “Pinnacle” capping the Appa­lachian Mountains.

Austrian became ill at the cottage in the winter of 1921 with what nearby Krumsville physician S. A. Brunner diag­nosed as “a rheumatism afflic­tion.” Because he seemed stable, Mollie departed for New York City where she was to visit relatives and celebrate her birthday, joined by Ben that weekend. She reached Philadelphia, only to learn that Ben had suffered heart failure and died on Friday, December 9.

Ben Austrian, buried the following Tuesday in the Pennsylvania countryside he loved so much, had be­friended patrons and admir­ers. His work – and his life – touched individuals who had the good fortune to en­counter them.

Perhaps the best tribute to Ben Austrian, the painter, was written by Edward Barber at the turn of the century.

It is the habit of Ben Austri­an’s individuality to give an al/­exuding fullness to the subject on which he works. He makes you feel, when you are viewing his latest picture, for instance, that nothing is worth doing but the painting of ducks. His pictures speak to you directly. They ad­dress you personally. You do not feel that they were painted for the public. They were painted for YOU. When your eye, therefore, encounters a new picture of Ben Austrian’s, no matter where, you do not look in the lower right hand corner of the canvas to catch the words ‘Ben Austrian, pinxit.’ It is not necessary. The name of the master is in every stroke of his brush.

 

For Further Reading

Barber, Edward. “After a South Wind.” Historical Review of Berks County. 47, 2 (Spring 1982), 52-53.

Caffin, Charles H. The Story of American Painting. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1907.

Chew, Paul A., ed. Southwest­ern Pennsylvania Painters, 1800-1945. Greensburg, Pa.: Westmoreland County Museum of Art, 1981.

Dickson, Harold E. Master­works by Pennsylvania Paint­ers in Pennsylvania Collections. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Museum of Art, 1972.

Hartman, Judith M. “Ben Aus­trian.” Historical Review of Berks County. 47, 2 (Spring 1982), 47-51, 64-65.

Hartmann, Sadakichi. A History of American Art. Boston: L. C. Page, 1902.

Isham, Samuel. History of American Painting. New York: Macmillan, 1905.

Mendelowitz, Daniel M. History of American Art. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970.

Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Associa­tion, 1983.

Sturm, Paul. “Bon Ami – Tough Competition.” Nineteenth Cen­tury. 7, 1 (Spring 1981), 22, 24.

 

Michael J. O’Malley III is editor of this magazine. The author wishes to acknowledge the generosity of individuals who lent illustrations for this article, especially Caryl A. Austrian, the artist’s great-grand niece; Robert D. Schwarz, Frank S. Schwarz and Son; Gordon T. Beaham III, president, and Ben­jamin Stark, advertising adminis­trator, Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Company; George B. Haller, Gallery Forty Four; Lester P Breininger; and Teresa DeFazio, Newman Galleries. The author also thanks the many interested individuals who graciously shared information, biographical data and photographs of identified Ben Austrian paintings and prints.