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

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. So, it’s no surprise that years later she would create art that highlights the plight of endangered and extinct animals.

The work of Madeline von Foerster

Von Foerster has built a career out of using her paintings to comment on the role humanity plays in the destruction of animal species. Two of her paintings, Carnival Insectivora and Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog, were included in the Museum’s exhibition Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity.

Carnival Insectivora highlights endangerment of the infamous Venus flytrap. 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 says.

The Venus flytrap is being petitioned for endangered status. It grows 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 became extinct in 2016 after the last known specimen of the species died at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Von Foerster’s painting honors that final frog by placing it in an ornate silver and gold container.

Von Foerster says the container is meant to resemble a monstrance. The Roman Catholic Church uses the highly decorated container to display the wafer a priest or bishop has blessed.

“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 says. “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.”

The Mische technique

Von Foerster works in a 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, “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.

“It permits the finest of detail,” von Foerster says. “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 says the paintings were laborious. Each of the two paintings took more than two months to create.

The hardest part was the metal container in the Rabb’s frog painting. She describes it as her “problem child.” Her initial idea was to paint it gold. But after painting a large portion of it, she realized the brown tones in the gold made the frog disappear. Because of this, she repainted it silver. In the end, von Foerster says 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 at madelinevonfoerster.com.

–Written by Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

Image credit: Madeline von Foerster stands next to her painting, Carnival Insectivora.

The making of Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog. Photos courtesy of the artist.

A sketched outline of the piece.

Applying layers of tinted egg tempera to the painting.

More layers of egg tempera and local glazes.

Applying final details with oil paint.