WHO IS ATHOS MENABONI?

Written By:

Russell Clayton, curator of Athos Menaboni – Framing His Vision: Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Birth of a Georgia Artist at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art

Athos Menaboni, 1950. Image courtesy of the Troup County Archives

Athos Menaboni (1895 – 1990) was born in 1895 in the Italian port city of Livorno. As a result of his ship-supplier father’s bringing home exotic animals from clients around the world, young Athos developed the lifelong fascination with birds and other animals, which later became the subjects of his paintings. At the age of nine, he began a formal study of art with private teachers. He later attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.

After serving in Italy’s armed forces during World War I, Menaboni left home with a job on an American freighter and immigrated to the United States in 1921, eventually becoming an American citizen in 1936.

By 1927, he was living in Atlanta, Georgia. During the next decade, he was hired by architect Philip Shutze to execute decorative painting at the Swan House (now a house museum at the Atlanta History Center) and in several other residences, as well as in public buildings. Other early commissions included restoration work on Atlanta’s Cyclorama. During this period, he also earned money painting landscapes and seascapes.

For the first year in Atlanta, Menaboni lived in a Peachtree Street boarding house owned by an uncle of his future wife. It was here he met Sara Regina Arnold, of Rome, Georgia, whom he married in 1928.

In 1937, Menaboni returned to his childhood interest in birds. From then on, he steadily refined aspects of the art for which he is now famous – naturalistic oil paintings of birds. He developed a technique that used turpentine to thin the oil in order to paint in layers on paper and give the feathers translucency, detail, and depth.

10 Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon (c.1965), oil on gessoed paper, by Athos Menaboni. Image courtesy of Russell Clayton.

Sara Menaboni’s sending of a portfolio of his paintings in 1938 to New York City led to exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History and the National Audubon Society. 

In 1941, Atlanta’s Coca-Cola magnate, Robert W. Woodruff, began selecting and printing an image of a Menaboni bird painting on his personal Christmas cards. This important, annual commission continued until 1984 (Woodruff died in 1985), producing an impressive forty-four card series.  

Menaboni also created artwork for periodicals (including Sports Illustrated and The Progressive Farmer), as well as for book publications (such as The World Book Encyclopedia). Since 1942, his art has been made even more widely available through lithographs.

In 1950, Sara and Athos Menaboni published Menaboni’s Birds. His paintings illustrated the text, which was written by his wife, and the volume was voted one of the “Fifty Best Books of the Year” by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

It was also in 1950 that the magazine Time declared Menaboni the heir of James Audubon, which was an apt designation given the fact Menaboni would eventually paint over 150 different species of birds. It was just one of the many recognitions during his career in Atlanta, which spanned over 60 years.  

In 1990, Athos Menaboni died at age 94. Three years later, Sara died. Athos Menaboni’s work continues to be admired and exhibited in museums throughout the United States.

Sources:

The Life and Art of Athos Menaboni by Barbara TaylorStuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Robert W. Woodruff Library Building, Emory University (Atlanta, GA); Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia (Athens, GA); Troup County Archives (LaGrange, GA); and personal recollections and interviews.