Ben Austrian

American, 1870 - 1921
Benjamin Franklin Austrian, one of the foremost recognized artists of Berks County, was born in Reading in 1870. His lifelong penchant for painting began at the early age of five, and continued through his adolescent years into his twenties, when he finally, with considerable growing success, pursued a career as an artist. Austrian was largely self-taught, but was probably most influenced by the accomplished local artists, Frederick Spang, Amos Gable, and Edward Howell. He expanded his artistic knowledge with visits to major institutions and exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Austrian’s realistic renditions of chickens became his calling card, not only here in the states, but also abroad. Ben raised his own chickens, isolating them from common barnyard life. He learned their mannerisms, communicative ways, and their spirits. Austrian had trained them to pose, allowing him to paint them from life. In 1902, a Bon Ami cleanser trade card featured a painting of chicks by Ben Austrian. It was a wellspring of positive recognition, not only for the product, but also for Ben himself.

In 1914, Austrian traveled by train to Palm Beach, Florida. In the remoteness of the barren beaches, he began to paint tonal landscapes of palm trees and sand. By 1918, Austrian purchased property for a studio and home. It was in the warmth of the Florida sun that he painted and exhibited during the cold winter months that were occurring in Pennsylvania. He developed a sound following in Florida, many of whom were vacationing affluent businessmen from around the country.

Ben Austrian died suddenly, at the age of fifty-one, at the height of his career.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Ben Austrian attended school in his hometown until he started working as a traveling representative for his father's business, a job that allowed him to visit museums in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and St. Louis. When his father died in 1897, he took over the family business but soon sold it, gave the profits to his mother, and pursued a career as an artist. Austrian became very successful, and one of his first paintings of a chick named Coal Black Lady was acquired by the Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker. In 1902 Austrian went to Europe and opened a studio in Paris. After returning to the United States he settled in Reading, and spent winters in Palm Beach, Florida. He also had a summer home in the mountains near Kempton in northern Berks County, Pennsylvania. One of Austrian's best known ventures was his series of advertisements for the Bon Ami Company, many of which represented chicks accompanied by his wife Molly posing as a housewife who always used the cleanser "Hasn't Scratched Yet". The trademark chicks are still used by the company. Austrian's remarkable career ended prematurely with his sudden death at the age of fifty-one. A retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted by the Historical Society of Berks County in 1982.

Biography courtesy of Schwarz Gallery,
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