A framed print of a picture painted more than a century ago hangs on the wall of my office. Titled “Rabbit Shooting,” it’s an action hunting scene depicting a father and his young son on a snowy winter background. The father, swinging a double-barreled side-by-side shotgun, is in the process of tumbling a cottontail being pursued by two hounds. Meanwhile, the son stands watching intently, holding not his own gun but a dead rabbit his father has killed previously.
The reason the painting is so appealing to me is that I, like tens of thousands of other Baby-Boomer boys, was taught to hunt by my father, and the game of choice was rabbits. As unbelievable as it may seem today, during the mid-twentieth century big-game animals in the Midwest such as white-tailed deer and wild turkeys were either extremely scarce or nonexistent. As a result, we hunted what we could, but the upshot was that small-game populations were high and the shooting was good.
And there is a second reason that particular picture in my office appeals to me. As a collector of hunting and fishing memorabilia, it was painted by America’s finest sporting artist of the time: A.B. Frost (1851-1928). His prints and paintings are highly collectible today.
Nearly forgotten now, Frost was a contemporary and colleague of the famed illustrator, painter and sculptor Frederic Remington. But whereas Remington chose to capture the culture of the vanishing American West—painting cowboys, Indians, soldiers and especially the horses of all three groups—Frost preferred the East. What made him so successful as a sporting artist was not only his hard work and exceptional, innate art talent, but the fact that he too was a hunter. In short, Frost knew what hunters and hunting should look like and could convey that detail to canvas.
In the 1967 biography The A.B. Frost Book, author Henry M. Reed writes of Frost, “Dozens of artists have surpassed Frost in technique, in handling of color, and in true artistic merit; yet why is Frost regarded as the finest of them all? The answer lies in the fact that Frost, himself a sportsman, is able to translate to the eye of the viewer the exact feeling which is taking place within his subjects in the pictures themselves. He captures the instant of suspense and excitement as the bird is about to flush, or the ducks are about to ‘stool in’ over the decoys. Frost was a stickler for correctness and detail. The hunter’s clothing is perfect, right down to the corduroy collar on the canvas jacket and the buckle on the boot. Perhaps even more remarkable are his dogs.”
The hunting paintings that A.B. Frost are most remembered for are his “Shooting Pictures,” a series of 12 colored lithographs published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1895-1896: Autumn Grouse, Autumn Woodcock, Quail—a Dead Stand, Quail—a Covey Rise, Rabbit Shooting, Summer Woodcock, Duck Shooting from a Blind, Duck Shooting from a Battery, Rail Shooting, Prairie Chickens, English Snipe and Bay Snipe.
In 1903, Scribner’s published six additional Frost paintings collectively titled A Day’s Shooting. Ordered Off and Gun Shy are both upland hunting scenes; Good Luck and Bad Luck depict duck hunting; and Smoking Him Out and We’ve Got Him are sentimental grandfather-grandson hunts.
In 1933-1934, Derrydale Press published four more Frost hunting prints posthumously. Hand-colored, the titles were October Woodcock Shooting, Grouse Shooting in the Rhododendrons, A Chance Shot While Setting Out Decoys and Coming Ashore.
A.B. Frost became so well known for his outstanding work as an illustrator that his artistic talents were sought by the leading authors of the day. For instance, Joel Chandler Harris had Frost illustrate his 1892 American literary classic, Uncle Remus and His Friends, featuring Br'er Rabbit as the main character. During his nearly half-century career, Frost illustrated more than 90 books, some written by such notables as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt, a future president of the United States.
Roosevelt was so insistent that Frost illustrate the book he was completing, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, that he wrote Frost the following letter:
“Dear Mr. Frost: In the words of the bard of Avon, d*mn the expense! I want at least five pictures; and six if you can give them.”
Frost gladly complied.
A surprising, little known-fact about A.B. Frost is that he was essentially colorblind. An obvious handicap to an artist, Frost was able to compensate for this condition by having an extraordinary sense of color value. Reed writes, “In his black, white, and sepia line drawings the tones, light and shadows are so delicately and skillfully applied that the viewer many times is almost unaware of the fact that color was not used in the drawing.”
If you have any interest in classic side-by-side shotguns, pointers and setters locked on ruffed grouse, woodcock or quail, or seeing how such bird hunting was experienced and portrayed more than a century ago, take the time to locate a few examples of A.B. Frost’s artwork. You won’t be disappointed.
Eugene V. Connett, for 37 years an editor of sporting books and prints, writes of A.B. Frost, “No one has ever equaled his ability to depict the mood, the detail, the authenticity of sporting scenes. This was and is the secret of the intense pleasure a sportsman feels as he drinks in the scene of a Frost shooting painting or drawing.”