Madeline von Foerster: Painting Humanity’s Role in Species Destruction

Madeline von Foerster stands next to her painting, Carnival Insectivora, during the opening ceremony of Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity.

By Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant


In fourth grade, Madeline von Foerster was asked to do a report on an animal for class. She opted to do her report on an extinct animal. At the time she was also developing a passion for art. With those two facts in mind, it’s no surprise that many years later she would be creating art that highlights the plight of endangered and extinct animals.

Von Foerster has built a career out of commenting on the role humanity plays in the destruction of animal species through her paintings. Two of her paintings, Carnival Insectivora and Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog, can be found in the Museum’s exhibition Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity, now showing at the Lightcatcher building.

Carnival Insectivora highlights endangerment of the infamous Venus flytrap, and Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog highlights the extinction of the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog.

“In both cases, I wanted to create a tribute or a shrine to threatened or extinct species, and also address humanity’s role in their fate,” von Foerster said in an interview with the Museum.

The Venus flytrap is currently being petitioned for endangered status. It grows naturally in habitats in the Coastal Plain and Sandhills of North and South Carolina. These habitats are quickly being destroyed by fire suppression techniques, commercial logging, and residential development, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog was declared extinct in 2016, after the last known specimen of the species, Toughie, died at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in September of that year. Von Foerster’s painting honors that final frog by placing it in an ornate silver and gold container.

Von Foerster said the container was meant to resemble a monstrance—a highly-decorated container that is used by the Roman Catholic Church to display the bread wafer that a priest or bishop has blessed. This religious connection is made more evident by the way the spires on the container resemble a cathedral’s flying buttresses and spires.

“I want my paintings to make visible the consequences of our actions/inaction. They are meant to inspire a different worldview, one of reverence for and partnership with the natural world,” von Foerster said. “Our lives are so enmeshed with the destruction of nature that it is scarcely visible to us. It will be very apparent to future generations, however, who must live with the results.”

Von Foerster works in a unique painting style called the Mische technique. The style was developed more than 500 years ago by Flemish painters and requires the application of many alternating layers of oil and egg tempera. The tempera allows her to paint fine details while the oil layers help with blending. According to von Foerster’s website she says, “the two media offer unparalleled luminosity, as light travels through the oil glazes and reflects off the highly opaque tempera beneath.” A demonstration and basic walk-through of the technique can be found on her website. To see how this technique was used to create Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog, look at the photo series at the bottom of this post.

“It permits the finest of detail,” von Foerster said. “Oil glazes in combination with the tempera under-painting create a luminous ‘glow’ unmatched in other media.  It’s laborious, but I love it.”

Von Foerster isn’t kidding when she said the paintings were laborious. She said that each of the two paintings took more than two months to create.

The hardest part of painting both pieces, von Foerster said, was the metal container in the Rabb’s frog painting. In fact, she described it as her “problem child.” She said her initial idea was to paint it gold. After painting a large portion of it, she realized the brown tones in the gold made the frog disappear. Because of this she had to repaint it silver. In the end, von Foerster said the painstaking process was worth it.

The preliminary drawing and sketch of Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog is now part of the Museum’s collection. Learn more about Madeline von Foerster and her work at


A Work in Progress: Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog in the Making

A sketched outline of the piece. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Layers of tinted egg tempera are applied to the painting. Photo courtesy of the artist.

More layers of egg tempera and local glazes are applied to the painting. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Final details are applied with oil paint. The painting is completed. Photo courtesy of the artist.



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