William Henry Drake: Brought The World To Life And Ended In A Suffocating Death


Artistic Journey Begins

Drake’s artistic journey took him back to New York in 1882. He spent countless hours sketching at the zoological gardens in Central Park and the Bronx, meticulously observing the creatures’ anatomy and habits. However, he quickly discovered the market for animal-themed works was limited. He continued to hone his skills with general illustration for several years before embarking on a transformative trip.

In 1887 and 1889, he studied at the prestigious Julian Academy in Paris, further refining his technique. He also took this opportunity to travel through Europe, enriching his artistic perspective.

A true adventurer, Drake undertook a 10,000-mile expedition to Alaska in 1893, gathering inspiration for his art amidst the rugged wilderness. This spirit of exploration continued with a sketching trip to the Catalina Islands to study seals.

Jungle Book Commission

A defining moment in Drake’s career came with the illustration of Rudyard Kipling’sJungle Book.” This project allowed him to fully embrace his love for depicting the animal kingdom. Following this success, Drake transitioned from illustration to focus on painting. His canvases, featuring creatures from wild habitats, garnered significant public appreciation and critical acclaim.

Drake’s artistic achievements were recognized through numerous awards and exhibitions. He received honors at the Paris Exposition, the Salmagundi Club, and the American Watercolor Society. Paintings like “The First Born” and “The Royal Family” solidified his reputation as a master of animal portraiture.

Beyond Lions

He also proved to be a highly diversified artist, having painted landscapes during his travels. One such painting is a 1913 painting of a Hawaii volcano. This painting is believed to be executed during a round-the-world trip from New York to Madeira to the Catalina islands, including a stop in Honolulu. This global adventure demonstrated Drake’s artistic curiosity and willingness to explore subjects beyond the animal kingdom. One hundred and twenty five of these watercolors were exhibited in April, 1915 in New York under the title “Around The World.”


Drake was a member of prestigious art organizations. These include the New York Art League, American Watercolor Society, New York Watercolor Society Salmagundi Club, and the Artists’ Fund Society.

Locked in a Closet

We might speculate Drake had been suffering from some type of debilitating disease. Although a note was left for his niece at the time, we do not know what words in contained. On January 23rd, 1926, at the age of 70, William Henry Drake locked himself inside his studio’s closet. He took with him a container of illuminating gas. The highly toxic and bright burning fuel used in lamps at the time, which tragically ended his life by asphyxiation.

From Lions to Lava, William Henry Drake’s legacy as an artist who breathed life and majesty into creatures and landscapes endures through his paintings.



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