Rex Brasher was born in 1869 in Brooklyn, New York, into an old Huguenot family. His grandfather Philip was a member of the New York State Legislature and was reputed to have helped to obtain a city charter for Brooklyn. Rex became passionate about birds at an early age, due to the influence of his father, an avid naturalist and bird taxidermist. In his youth he had heard many times how his father had gone to John James Audubon to discuss birds, only to be snubbed. In 1878, at the age of eight, Brasher determined to paint all the birds of North America from life--and better than Audubon. He started painting birds seriously around age 16, but none of his early paintings has survived.
His determination to study birds in their natural surroundings took Brasher to all corners of North America. He financed his first trip, down the east coast from Maine to Florida, by working as a photoengraver. Most of his other trips were financed by betting on horse races. One of his most successful bets netted $10,000 and financed an extensive trip to the Midwest. At one point, after losing most of his money on a bad bet, he took a job on a fishing boat sailing out of Boston and Portland. He was then able to earn a living while studying and sketching sea birds. During his years of artistic work he often found it necessary to make financial ends meet by doing farm work, work with the town road crew, carpentry and housebuilding, including one fine stone house in Kent which is still used as a residence.
On his trips to the West, Midwest and Gulf Coast, Brasher traveled by train and on foot. Sometimes he walked the countryside for months at a time, stopping along the way to mail home his sketches and notes. Between trips he painted in an apartment in New York. His determination to make his bird paintings as lifelike as possible, led him twice to destroy all of the paintings he had done, a total of at least 700 works. In 1907, while studying the bird skin collection of the American Museum of Natural History, Brasher met the famous bird painter, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who became his good friend and a major influence on his artistic techniques. It was during this time that he learned new techniques for painting feathers that satisfied his artistic standards.
In 1911, Rex spent a $700 commission received for illustrating a book to purchase a small farmhouse on 150-acres near Kent, Connecticut. He called his homestead Chickadee Valley. It was there in 1924, after 47 years of work, that he finished his task. His paintings included 1200 species and sub-species of birds listed on the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) Checklist of North American Birds. The numbers on many of the paintings are the AOU numbers assigned to the birds. Brasher's paintings included more than twice as many birds as Audubon's, who painted 489. Brasher worked from direct observation and portrayed the birds in natural activities and habitats, including associated plants whenever possible. He considered that his 874 paintings, which were placed on exhibition in 1932 at the English Book Shop in New York City, represented a completion of the work begun by John James Audubon.
In 1935, Brasher offered his paintings to the State of Connecticut, providing that a suitable repository could be found for them. Three years later he took the pictures back after various attempts to raise funds for a museum in which to display them had failed. The paintings were then sent to Washington, D. C. to be exhibited as Birds and Trees of North America in the Explorers Hall of the National Geographic Society.
Brasher wanted to see his paintings published but discovered that it would be far too expensive to print all 874 of his paintings in color. To solve this problem he had the Meriden Gravure Company make black and white reproductions, which he then hand-colored using stencils and an airbrush. The text was written by his niece Marie and printed by the New Milford Times. The covers were made by a bookbinder on Long Island, and the volumes were assembled in a renovated barn in Chickadee Valley. In all, 100 sets of 12 volumes of Birds and Trees of North America were produced, including almost 90,000 hand colored reproductions.
Rex Brasher worked until two years before his death, when his eyesight failed him. He died in 1960, in Gaylordsville, CT, at the age of 91. His monumental achievement has earned him a permanent place among noted American wildlife illustrators. It is unlikely that anyone will ever again attempt to repeat such a comprehensive series of paintings.