Athos Rodolfo Giorgio Alessandro Menaboni was born on October 20, 1895, to Averardo and Jenny Neri Menaboni in the Italian port city of Livorno. Menaboni’s father was a successful ship supplier, and his maternal grandfather, Alessandro Neri, was a military leader, with Garibaldi, in Italy’s unification movement. As a result of his father’s bringing home exotic animals given him by clients, young Athos developed the lifelong fascination with birds and other animals, which later became the subjects of his paintings. He also often rode his bicycle to nearby Pisa where he admired the city’s art and architecture. At the age of nine, he began a formal study of art with private teachers, including marine painter Ugo Manaresi, muralist Charles Doudelet, and sculptor Pietro Gori. He later attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.
Menaboni had no interest in his father’s business. In 1920, after World War I and his service as a sharpshooter and a pilot in Italy’s armed forces, Menaboni left home with a job on an American freighter, spent some time in Tunisia along the way, and then landed in the United States in 1921, becoming an American citizen in 1939. After arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, he settled first in New York City, taking a job decorating candles for churches. Four years later he went to Davis Island, in Tampa, Florida, to become art director for a real estate development.
In 1927, when the land boom ended, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and soon began working on projects with Philip Shutze, one of the city’s leading architects. During the next decade, Shutze hired him to do decorative painting at the Swan House (the home of Edward Inman) and in several other residences (the May Patterson Goodrum House, Spotswood Hall, and the Patterson-Carr House) as well as public buildings (The Temple and the Capital City Club). Menaboni also worked with other architects, including Samuel Inman Cooper and Albert Howell. Other important early commissions included restoration work on Atlanta’s Cyclorama, decorative painting of the lobby ceiling in the Rhodes-Haverty Building, and murals in the home of R. J. Reynolds on Sapelo Island (another Shutze project). During this period, he also earned money painting landscapes and seascapes.
For the first year in Atlanta, Menaboni lived in a downtown Peachtree Street boarding house owned by an uncle of his future wife. It was here that he met Sara Regina Arnold, of Rome, Georgia, whom he married in August 1928. After honeymooning in Italy, they found a small apartment, first on Tenth and later Eleventh Street. In 1939 they bought six acres in an Atlanta suburb, where in 1942 they built a house. This was at 1111 Cook Road, later renamed Crest Valley Drive. They named their property Valle Ombrosa (Shady Valley) after a town southeast of Florence, Menaboni’s favorite holiday destination during his boyhood summers. Their little estate became a bird sanctuary, complete with its own aviary, and it also included a greenhouse for the cultivation of Menaboni’s bonsai. Husband and wife lived and worked there for the rest of their lives.
In 1937, between commissions, Menaboni began experimenting with paint pigments and returned to his early childhood interest in birds. When he painted a pair of cardinals for a wall in his own living room, an interior designer and close friend, Molly Whitehead Aeck, noticed the painting and insisted that she be allowed to purchase it for a client. The resulting sale marked the beginning of a shift in Athos Menaboni’s career, and 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 he referred to as his “undercoat method,” which used turpentine to thin the oil in order to paint in layers on paper and give the feathers translucency, detail, and depth. Admirers continue to mistake these paintings for watercolors.
Sara Menaboni’s sending – in 1938 – a portfolio of his bird paintings to New York City led almost immediately to major exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History and the National Audubon Society. A show at Kennedy and Company (later known as Kennedy Galleries) led in turn to Menaboni’s long association with Robert W. Woodruff of The Coca-Cola Company, for it was there in New York that some of Woodruff’s close associates noticed and purchased the painting Doves in Longleaf Pine for the Woodruffs. It reminded them of a scene at Ichauway Plantation (the Woodruffs’ beloved Baker County, Georgia, retreat). After Mrs. Woodruff discovered that the artist lived in Atlanta, she decided she would like to use the work on their 1941 Christmas card. It became a tradition, with a different Menaboni bird painting each year until 1984 (Mr. Woodruff died in 1985). Emory University (in Atlanta) and the Troup County Archives (in LaGrange, Georgia) both hold a complete set of the forty-four cards, sometimes described by collectors and enthusiasts as one of the finest ever produced.
From the late 1930s on, Menaboni’s range of media broadened. During this time he rendered countless landscapes, seascapes, botanicals, nature studies, and what might be termed surreal fantasies on a variety of materials, including silk, wood, Masonite, cork, and paper. In 1939 he created fifteen mirrors, done in reverse painting on glass (before it was silvered), for a windowless dining room at Atlanta’s Capital City Club. Then, between 1951 and 1969, he was able to return to an interest from earlier in his career when Mills B. Lane, Jr., president of The Citizens and Southern National Bank, commissioned him to paint murals in bank buildings in Atlanta and Albany, Georgia, and to create an eggshell mosaic for the branch in Decatur, Georgia. He did magazine work as well. For example, he painted sixteen covers for The Progressive Farmer and two for Sports Illustrated. His work also appeared in publications in book-form, including The World Book Encyclopedia.
Since 1942 Menaboni’s work has been made even more widely available through prints and lithographs produced by (among other institutions and companies) the National Audubon Society. In 1953 and 1959, respectively, his birds appeared in an ad for the Prudential Insurance Company and on a calendar produced by The Coca-Cola Company.
In 1950 Sara and Athos Menaboni published Menaboni’s Birds. His paintings illustrated the text 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 reissued in 1984 using the original text with thirty-one new full-color reproductions. Menaboni was also asked to illustrate several other authors’ books, including Never the Nightingale by Daniel Whitehead Hicky (a Georgia poet).
It was also in 1950 that Time declared Menaboni the heir of James Audubon, an apt designation, given the fact he would eventually paint over one hundred fifty different species of birds. The magazine’s was just one of his many recognitions. During his career in Atlanta, which spanned sixty-three years, he received awards from the American Graphic Society, the Georgia Writers Association, the New York Art Directors Club, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Atlanta Beautiful Commission, the Capital City Club, the American Institute of Architects, the Italian Cultural Society, the Garden Club of Georgia, and the Office of the Governor of Georgia (the Governor’s Award in Visual Arts).
In 1990 Athos Menaboni suffered a stroke and died two months later, on July 18, at age ninety-four. His body was donated to the Emory University School of Medicine. A memorial service was held at the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel at Callaway Gardens on July 22, and the eulogy was delivered by Elizabeth Carlock Harris, Georgia’s first lady. Sara died three years later on August 10, 1993.
Menaboni’s works have been exhibited in many galleries and in art and natural history museums across the United States. They include the Kennedy Galleries, the Columbia Museum of Art, the Pensacola Arts Center, the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art, the Albany Museum of Art, The Martha Berry Museum at Berry College, Emory University, the Vose Gallery, the St. Louis Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, the Atlanta History Center, the Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum, the Detroit Art Museum, the Stark Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Booth Western Art Museum, The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts, and the Jekyll Island Arts Association.
In 2007 Russell Clayton, retired Marietta, Georgia, educator and a friend of Sara and Athos Menaboni, donated Menaboni art and an extensive archive collection to Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. Following a generous gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, KSU built a gallery to honor the life and work of the artist. The Don Russell Clayton Gallery is located in the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art on KSU’s Kennesaw campus. The art collection includes paintings, drawings, three-dimensional works, prints, and lithographs. Since Clayton’s donation, the Athos Menaboni Permanent Art Collection continues to grow with works given by other donors.
In 2013 Clayton transferred the archive collection from KSU to the Troup County Archives. The archives there also house material from the Menabonis’ estate donated by Callaway Gardens. Archive collections can also be found at the University of Georgia and Emory University, and his art is included in the permanent collections of a great many other museums and institutions. Exhibitions continue to be planned and mounted.
Biography by Russell Clayton
Click the titles below to view individual works
- American Bald Eagle, 1975