For many modern waterfowlers, the name Maynard Reece isn’t a familiar one, even if one of the images that the famous wildlife and sporting artist painted is.
Reece, who died on July 11, 2020 at the age of 100, was a five-time winner of the Federal Duck Stamp
art competition, his work adorning several of the stamps required for U.S. hunters 16-years of age and older to legally chase migratory waterfowl each fall.
While the Iowa artist painted numerous works during his long and storied career, it is a 1959 duck stamp — which has the official moniker of Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp — image that he is undoubtedly best known for. More on that in a moment.
Born in Arnolds Park, Iowa in 1920, Reece was the son of a Quaker clergyman and was attracted to the Midwestern outdoors at an early age. Taking his first duck as a youth, Reece’s first artistic success came in 1933 when his pencil drawing of mallards won a contest at the Iowa State Fair when he was only 12 years old.
A graphic artist early in his professional life, Reece made his home in Des Moines in the 1940s, meeting cartoonist and celebrated wildlife conservationist Jay N. “Ding” Darling, the father of the Federal Duck Stamp, who helped mentor the young Reece in the two decades plus of their friendship.
Reece’s artistic talent and his attraction to wildlife and the outdoors lifestyle eventually led him into a full time career where he became one of the nation’s best wildlife artists. With numerous original paintings, conservation group prints, state duck stamps, and magazine artwork — he was hired by Life magazine to produce freshwater and saltwater fish images — the painter became a force in conservation fundraising as his work raised countless dollars for wildlife and habitat work.
No where was that more evident than in his Federal Duck Stamp paintings, an art competition that Reece captured a record five times over the course of his career in 1948, 1951, 1959, 1969, and 1971. But it’s the year 1959 that the titan of an artist is most remembered for.
That stamp image, known to almost every waterfowler as well as countless others, was a classic pose of one of history’s most celebrated Labrador retrievers, King Buck. In the painting, the retriever with a graying muzzle is seen holding a mallard drake in a stoic image that all but defines the long running fundraising stamp produced annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A weakling pup born in 1948, a Ducks Unlimited story about King Buck shows that he almost perished early on due to a bout with distemper. After surviving the malady, the retriever quickly showed his retrieving prowess as Nebraska trainer Robert Howard started to harness the pup’s greatness. Eventually noticed by Winchester-Western owner John M. Olin, the dog was purchased for a handsome sum of money and headed for Olin’s Nilo Kennels in Illinois where retriever guru Theodore “Cotton” Pershall took over the dog’s training in 1951.
It didn’t take long for King Buck to begin displaying his championship abilities as he started stringing together solid performances in the highly competitive field trial game. After winning consecutive National Retriever Field Trial Club championships in 1952 and 1953, the dog was on his way to becoming one of the most cherished retrievers of all-time. Adept at field work as well, Olin commemorated the retriever’s legacy with a life-sized statue at Nilo Farms after the dog passed away in 1962 just shy of his fourteenth birthday.
As King Buck aged, waterfowling fate gave both the dog and Reece outdoors immortality when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 1958 that the subject of the 1959 Federal Duck Stamp art competition should feature a retriever to honor the conservation effect that such dogs had in the field.
According to DU author Chris Madson, Olin reportedly contacted Reece, already a two-time winner of the duck stamp competition, and inquired as to whether the artist would be interested in making King Buck the centerpiece of his competition entry for 1959. Reece agreed, traveled to Illinois to meet the dog, and the rest is history.
Entitled by Reece as "Labrador Retriever — Holding Mallard,” the winning image marks the only time in the Federal Duck Stamp's long history dating back to 1934 that a waterfowl species hasn't been the stamp’s featured subject.
According to the Smithsonian Institution's Postal Museum website, reaction from the public was somewhat lukewarm when the stamp was first issued. Produced in black, blue, and yellow, the first multi-colored Federal Duck Stamp carried the conservation message "Retrievers Save Game."
Released on July 1, 1959, the stamp image eventually went viral, becoming one of the most iconic waterfowl images of all-time, recognizable to millions of duck hunters and conservationists.
The story of King Buck — and Reece's most famous painting — has been told to countless audiences down through the years. Frequent Outdoor Sportsman Group contributor Keith Sutton penned one of those stories, a 2013 piece entitled "Champion retriever King Buck's amazing story," that detailed the wonder dog and his unexpected rise to fame.
In winning the 1959 competition with his painting of King Buck, Reece — whose artwork graced periodicals such as Sports Illustrated and the Saturday Evening Post along with two books, "The Waterfowl Art of Maynard Reece" and "The Upland Bird Art of Maynard Reece" — became the first person to win the federal duck stamp competition a total of three times.
In eventually capturing the contest title five times, Reece set a record for duck stamp wins that many observers felt would never be broken. Only in recent years when the Hautman brothers have risen to duck stamp fame — James and Joseph have won the contest five times while Robert has won it three times — has that idea been challenged.
While the King Buck duck stamp painting is one of Reece’s most celebrated works of art, he was far from done in his career. In fact, the Iowa artist’s work has been so popular that several dozen paintings and artifacts are reportedly displayed in the Iowa State Historical Museum while others hang on walls across the Iowa State University campus.
The latter location includes one of Reece’s most noted recent works, an ongoing painting entitled “Ninety-Something Mallards,” which the artist describes in a statement on an Iowa State University website:
“In the year 2000 my wife, June, decided that I should make an 80 mallard painting to celebrate my 80th birthday,” stated Reece in 2013. “It was such a success I decided to make a 2005 and a 2010 painting portraying 85 and 90 mallards to honor my 85th and 90th birthdays.
“I asked my two boys how they would divide the three paintings when I died, and they said, ‘Just make a 95 mallard painting.’ So this “Ninety-Something Mallards” painting has 93 mallards in it and every year I’m alive I will add another mallard.”
While Reece was described by media reports as sharp and still painting in recent years, he apparently never got to work on turning his last effort into “100-Something Mallards” as the COVID-19 outbreak kept him confined to the retirement community home that he lived in.
The coronavirus outbreak made his 100th birthday celebration this spring somewhat different as his two surviving sons, Mark and Brad, had to reportedly Facetime their famous father rather than gather with him in person.
Reece’s funeral service is being impacted as well, with a gathering of immediate family only for a graveside service. The obituary on the Wallace Family Funeral Home website shows that “A celebration of Maynard’s Life” will be held at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, anyone wanting to honor Reece’s memory is asked to make a donation to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, 505 Fifth Ave., No. 4444, Des Moines, Iowa 50309.
While Reece’s final painting will never be finished with an even 100 greenheads gracing the artwork, that hardly matters since he left an uncalculatable impact on wildlife and conservation work across America thanks to the giant’s lifetime of artwork.
Images that will live on for years to come, the paintings of Maynard Reece remain highly significant for those who thrill to see ducks and geese winging south every fall.
The original king of duck stamp paintings is dead, but long live the king.
Editor's Note: The oil on canvas painting "Ninety Something — Mallards" was started by the late Maynard Reece in 2011. It now hangs in the Science Hall at Iowa State University as a part of the Art on Campus Collection maintained in Ames by ISU. The photo of Reece painting is provided courtesy of his son, Brad, and is of the artist working on Iowa Marsh in 2013.