Two records were under siege last week when a standing-room-only crowd converged on Sotheby’s auction house in New York. Outside, an early heat wave was threatening to push the mercury over 97 degrees, an all-time high for the date. Inside, brisk bidding closed in on, and soon surpassed, the highest price ever paid for a work by the naturalist painter John James Audubon. When the gavel fell, a New York dealer had paid $253,000 for an 1824 watercolor of two boat-tailed grackles—known to most people simply as blackbirds.
Just two and a half years ago the same painting had been offered in the mail-order catalog of a Philadelphia print dealer for $18,000—and was snapped up by two Audubon fanatics who recognized it as one of the master’s long-missing early works. Not long afterward the new owners, 44-year-old twins Scott and Stuart Gentling of Fort Worth, decided to use their treasure to help bankroll their own Audubon-inspired masterwork, Of Birds and Texas. A massive boxed portfolio of 50 paintings of birds and landscapes, it was 10 years and $550,000 in the making and might never have seen the light of day without the grackle windfall. “We literally ran out of money,” says Stuart, like his brother a full-time artist since college, “and we had to use the grackles as collateral.” Most of the $210,000 profit the brothers expect to clear from the sale will go toward clearing up their grackle-backed debts.
Stuart also hopes the publicity surrounding the auction will produce some national recognition for him and his twin. “It’s so difficult to get people to take us seriously,” he says. “They don’t think that something like Of Birds and Texas could be created in the boondocks.”
They may now, however, since the Gentlings’ opus has been getting rave reviews. The Dallas Morning News described it as “destined to become a classic of ornithology and fine printing,” and painter Andrew Wyeth declared it “overwhelming.” It is certainly that: Two feet long and weighing 46 pounds, it could pass for a coffee table without legs. The price is Texas-size too: $2,500 for one of a limited edition of 500 books.
Two of four children of an anesthesiologist then working at the Mayo Clinic, the twins were born in Rochester, Minn., in 1942. “Scott and Stuart had a special language they talked when they were 18 months old that no one else understood,” recalls their mother, Barbara. “In the family we’re all good friends, but we’re outsiders. They’re a closed corporation.”
When the boys were 5, the family moved to Fort Worth. Stuart was 13 when he first came across Audubon’s Birds of America at the library of the local natural history museum. Inspired to draw a bird of his own, he prevailed upon Scott, the younger twin by 15 minutes, to fill in the sketch with watercolors. Three years later the boys took the family station wagon and retraced Audubon’s journey through the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys.
Schooling temporarily put an end to their collaboration. Stuart picked up his B.A. in English at Tulane in 1965, then spent a year at the University of Texas School of Law. Scott had spent four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by the time he persuaded Stuart to join him there in 1966. “I really learned painting from Scott,” admits his twin. “He’s the better painter.” Scott’s portraits of Texas titans, such as Dallas real estate developer Trammell Crow, fetch up to $25,000, while Stuart’s landscapes and still lifes top out at $10,000.
It was Stuart’s idea to do the book, and when he first mentioned it, Scott was unenthusiastic. “I haven’t painted a bird for 17 years,” he said. But Stuart convinced him, proposing the same collaborative approach they had tried as kids. Some pictures took three or four years to produce as both twins struggled to find a dramatic moment in the life of a scissortail flycatcher or a roseate spoonbill and then worked out the picture’s composition.
For their next project, the brothers would like to do a visual history of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán from 1519 to 1521, when it fell to the Spanish conquistadors. “It’s never been done before,” says Scott, “I’d like to finish by 1992.”
None of the brothers’ future undertakings are as likely to be touched by such rare good fortune as Of Birds and Texas, which is dedicated to Audubon, the brothers’ inadvertent benefactor. Writing the introduction to the book in 1984, Stuart made mention of the long-lost grackles; six months later they suddenly turned up and improved the project’s finances, though not, as it turns out, Scott’s attitude toward his fine-feathered subjects. “To be honest,” he says, “I don’t care if I ever paint another bird again.”