Historical Markers
Ben Austrian Historical Marker
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Ben Austrian

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
New Bethel Union Church Cemetery, RD 2, Kempton

Dedication Date:
June 17, 1995

Behind the Marker

Ever since 1903, the "Bon Ami" chick has called attention to "the best scouring soap made" by the J. T. Robertson Company (presently the Faultless Starch Company). Another icon that identified the popular cleanser was a housewife happily, and busily, at work keeping her premises spotless with the product that "hasn't scratched yet." The model for the housewife was Mollie (Auman) Austrian, married to Ben, America's first noted Jewish painter and the most famous artist to hail from Reading, Pennsylvania.
Mother hen is sitting on a nest, surrounded by nine baby chicks
Motherhood , by Ben Austrian, 1897.

Born at 26 South 4th Street on November 22, 1870, Austrian was the fifth son of a locally prominent family that had helped to found Reading's Oheb Shalom Synagogue in 1864. His father Raphael was a German immigrant who owned a dry goods store at 527 Penn Street; his mother Fannie Elizabeth Dierfross was related to the prominent Drexels of Philadelphia. Ben suffered from ill health much of his life, but at the same time his art received great encouragement from both his family and the local community. He was completely self-taught, as his parents had no money to send him to art school. Friends and his mother provided him with paints as a child, but at the age of fifteen he went to work in his father's store, later becoming a traveling salesman for the family business. Austrian cultivated customers by offering each of them an original painting. By the early 1890s, these were attracting attention: his 1895 painting, "After the Race" won him a prize of $100 from the National Horse Show Association, but in 1897 he stopped painting when he and his brother Julian took over their deceased father's steam laundry. Julian realized Ben was miserable without a paintbrush in hand; the brothers persuaded their mother to sell the business to support Ben's career as an artist.

Austrian's work, which warmly and with perfect accuracy depicted animals and scenes of country life, instantly appealed to an urban public nostalgic for a lost, simpler life. Philadelphia critic Edward Barber explained the "witchery" of Austrian's work: "He makes you feel, when you are viewing his latest picture, for instance, that nothing is worth doing but the painting of ducks." "A Day's Hunt", exhibited at Earle's Art Gallery in Philadelphia in 1898, was his first great success; in 1904, upon his return from successful showings in Paris and London, Reading industrialist James Hervey Sternbergh paid $2500 for it. The Walker Museum of Art in Liverpool had purchased "Golden Harvest." But Austrian's specialty was hens and chickens: he even trained some, such as the "Coal Black Lady" and "Dame Julia" and "Dame Pauline," to pose for him.

Color advertisement of woman cleaning with Bon Ami.
Bona Ami advertisement by Ben Austrian
In 1900, Austrian's chicken paintings caught the eye of A. W. Erickson, who placed full color advertisements with chicks painted by Austrian in leading women's magazines. Austrian's chicks became so popular that he painted them over and over, in groups or singly, for post cards, boxes, posters, and trade cards. Other company advertisements allowed Austrian to present his wife Mollie, who appeared in numerous guises during from 1903 to 1921 to suit changing fashions, as the incarnation of the ideal housewife. Austrian founded the "Ben Austrian Art Publishing Company" to handle all the requests for paintings and lithographs he received from the United States and Europe.

His success assured, Austrian divided his time between two cottages he loved: summer and fall he spent at "Clovelly at Pinnacle" in northern Berks County near Kempton, spring at his cabin on Perkiomen Avenue in Neversink, and winters in Palm Beach, Florida. Austrian died suddenly of a heart attack on December 9, 1921, and was buried behind the Lutheran Church in Kempton, at a spot where he loved to watch the sunsets.

Austrian's career exemplifies the art of the legions of illustrators and commercial artists who gave Americans - in newspapers, magazines, and books - their images of the world in the days before the introduction of photography in these publications. Americans loved commercial art, which was both attractive and affordable. Austrian's chick paintings appeared on calendars and as prints where they adorned houses in addition to advertising cleaning products. Unlike photographs, most illustrations could focus on the subject and leave out extraneous people, buildings, scenery; they were therefore more suited for portraying a specific image, in most cases heroic and positive, or (as with Austrian's chicks) putting a friendly face on a commercial product. Austrian's successors and their counterparts who write television ads continue to associate products such as soap, for example, with an "Irish Spring" or cigarettes with the expansive terrain of the "Marlboro Country."
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