by Bob Bahr
Kids—and adults as well—love American flamingoes for their oddness. John James Audubon, arguably the most famous painter of birds in history, included the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in his epic publication The Birds of America, and contemporary artists cannot resist commenting on how Audubon posed the wading bird for his watercolor illustration.
Audubon painted the 5′ reddish pink bird with its head lowered, which allowed him to paint the flamingo at nearly life size, considering he was working on a double elephant folio–each page was nearly 40 inches tall. The flamingo feeds by sifting the bent end of its beak through seawater that is agitated by the bird’s feet. The bird’s mandibles have lamella (platelike structures) that filter the water, allowing the flamingo to feed on crustaceans and other food sources and sort out water and small particulates. Audubon was depicting the flamingo with its head down, which is a typical feeding posture, but with its beak end vertical, which is not naturalistic.
“I can still remember thinking about the flamingo and how he contorted it to make it fit,” says David Rankin, a watercolorist who is celebrated for his depictions of birds. “How do you get that large bird on a page when it can’t be life size. He knew how big he could go and still fit in the folio. There had to be an a-ha day when he realized he could make most of them life size. He was probably the first one to say, ‘How cool is that?'”
“I love flamingos but also that pose is an obviously forced way to get it to fit on the page,” comments Andrew Denman, an oil painter who likewise paints birds in exquisite fashion.
“On some pages, especially the ones with really gangly birds—the ones with long necks or legs—it looks like it’s just that he had to fit it on the page,” adds James Coe, an oil painter who often includes birds in his landscapes, and who wrote and illustrated the 1994 Golden Books bird guide Eastern Birds. “As a contemporary bird artist, I find them hard to look at and I really don’t appreciate them except as graphic design. They are just not that naturalistic. It’s hit or miss for me.”
Coe also says that he uses at least one slide from Audubon whenever he gives talks on birds in art: the least tern. “It shows how creative he was,” says the New York State artist. “The tern is evidently pasted on the background like a collage. It demonstrates how as a graphic designer he was willing to do whatever it takes to get what he was after.”
Indeed, several plates from The Birds of America were used by the British textile industry for home furnishings in the 1830s. Audubon was a skilled artist who created appealing, popular images. For the first half of his life, most of his money came from painting portraits of America’s moneyed class. Audubon worked at his draftsmanship and painting and became an artist capable of supporting himself. But his goal from early on was to create a body of work focusing on New World birds, and thus to make his mark—in a big way–on the worlds of art and naturalism.
First, some background. John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin Audubon in 1785 in Haiti, the son of a French naval officer and his mistress/chambermaid. His father sent him to manage his estate in Pennsylvania, in large part to keep his son safe from conscription in Napoleon’s army back in France. Although the son had a head on his shoulders and a shy if winning way with people, Audubon’s early business ventures were largely a bust. With his wife’s reluctant blessings, Audubon traveled down the Ohio River and the Mississippi to New Orleans and Natchez to collect and draw birds, leaving his young family in Louisville, Kentucky under the tenuous care of in-laws and friends.
Audubon had previously met a man named Alexander Wilson and seen this naturalist’s bird illustrations in Louisville. Although Audubon was not impressed with Wilson’s artwork, he was excited by Wilson’s big thinking: Wilson sought to document all the bird species in the New World, and support the project through subscriptions. When Audubon realized that Wilson wasn’t going to be a willing colleague, nor would Wilson’s project achieve the heights possible for such an endeavor, he decided to do it bigger and better. In particular, he pursued improved accuracy in the details and nomenclature, and a more natural look than Wilson gave to his birds. Wilson’s drawings looked like they were sketched from stuffed specimens—because they largely were.
“Wilson was the father of American ornithology,” says DeVere Burt, a painter, writer, board member with the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation, and Director Emeritus of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science. “Wilson did the same thing Audubon set out to do, only earlier and on a much smaller scale. He was a master weaver, poet, and better scientist than Audubon… but Audubon was by far the better artist.” Wilson’s illustrations were not to scale—a hummingbird and a bald eagle may be given similar space in his work. “Audubon and Wilson met in Louisville and got along fine, but mostly, Wilson provided the template for Audubon to make the subscription model for The Birds of America. Wilson had that great material that preceded Audubon’s, and Wilson’s death in 1813 allowed Audubon to pursue this.”
Audubon’s subscription model required patrons to put down money in advance, and as tinted engravings were finished, (mostly) at Robert Havell, Jr.’s shop in London, they were shipped out five sheets at a time. Subscribers were sent three sheets featuring small birds, one sheet with a mid-sized bird, and one sheet featuring a large bird. It was an expensive subscription; in today’s dollars The Birds of America cost $25,000. (It cost Audubon and Havell more than $2 million in today’s dollars to create the work. And in 2011, a complete set of the engravings was sold at auction for $11.5 million.)
In the end, 457 species were featured on 435 plates. Audubon put together his patrons for the subscription by soliciting letters of recommendation from local officials, enabling him to contact state officials, who gave letters of recommendation that opened doors on the national level, and so on, until queens, kings, presidents, and the very rich all became invested in Audubon’s endeavor.
“He was a terrific entrepreneur,” states Burt. “He sold subscriptions to kings and presidents—he was a very bright, entrepreneurial guy. He was also a curious artist, innovative in approach, and obsessed with accuracy. And he was full of tenacity.”
Nevertheless, the poses in which he placed some of his birds seem unnatural enough to cool the enthusiasm of some viewers. A little perspective may be needed.
Audubon lived in a time before photography, and binoculars were not commonplace. Observation of birds in his era was about sketching or relying on memory. Accurate and naturalistic depictions of birds were thus a challenge. Also, while the aristocracy of Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the young United States) craved information on new species from the New World, their only chance to see most of the birds would be to have taxidermied specimens or simply the skins and feathers of a bird. Bear in mind, the Victorians were avid collectors.
“America was the exotic new land and this was a way that people could relate to it,” says Denman. “Audubon was cataloging and illustrating what he saw in the New World–his artwork was the discovery that he brought back to England. It became a status symbol to have a complete collection of bird skins, orchids, or whatever, and Audubon was a part of that.”
Although Audubon’s poses are sometimes not convincingly naturalistic, they do have a sense of the quick about them. These birds were alive, and became alive again in Audubon’s drawings.
In addition to any number of animal-centric TV documentaries, our modern eyes know bird behavior and appearance from expert animal photography and, for some of us, close observation of wild or captive birds. Even the most casual of viewers have some understanding of how birds look and act. Audubon was presenting birds never seen by Europeans. “The question of whether it’s better to use photography is debatable even today, but the issue is immaterial,” says Denman. “Audubon didn’t have photography, but he did create some of the only enduring images of birds that don’t exist anymore. This underscores the value of art as a tool for historical preservation. In fact, it reminds me of my favorite anecdote about Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Someone once commented to Stein that Picasso’s painting of Stein ‘doesn’t even look like you,’ and she replied, ‘Yes, but it will.’ She knew it would be the most famous image of her ever. That’s similar to the extinct Carolina parakeet. What did a Carolina parakeet look like? It looked like the Audubon plate. There are no nicely taxidermied and posed naturalistic specimens of the Carolina parakeet.”
Indeed, Audubon depicted five more now-extinct New World birds: the great auk, Labrador duck, Eskimo curlew, pinnated grouse, and passenger pigeon. Surely there are other depictions of most of these species. Audubon’s renditions are the ones that stay foremost in our minds. Why? Because although Audubon’s poses are sometimes not convincingly naturalistic, they do have a sense of the quick about them. These birds were alive, and became alive again in Audubon’s drawings.
Where did this resolution to enliven his painted birds come from? A clue lies in this: Audubon was a hunter.
Richard Rhodes wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning biography titled John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2004, Vintage Books, NYC) that is highly recommended. In it, Rhodes says, “Audubon engaged birds with the intensity (and sometimes the ferocity) of a hunter because hunting was the cultural frame out of which his encounters with birds emerged.” In describing a drawing of a kingfisher, Rhodes notes that “its near eye [is] directly engaging the viewer, as almost all Audubon’s birds do… .”
Audubon occasionally worked from stuffed specimens, in particular some that he saw in London, and it’s possible that a few of his drawings were done solely from life, but mostly, Audubon shot (or paid someone to shoot) multiple specimens of a given species and worked from them as soon as possible, before the color left their eyes and skin.
“How do you get an accurate depiction of a bird’s feathers?” asks Rankin. “You shoot the damn thing, lay it down, and paint it.” Audubon did indeed start out this way. He experimented with hanging the birds by their foot for his drawings; that did not suit him. “I betook myself to the drawing of specimen[s] hung to a string by one foot,” he ridiculed an early attempt, “with the desire to shew [sic] their every portion as the wings lay loosely spread as well as the tail—in this manner I made some pretty fair signboards for poulterers!” Audubon wrote.
The artist knew his own mind. Enduring the financial straits his project put his family through, and his long absences from home in pursuit of his idea, Audubon doggedly kept on with his dream of a comprehensive ornithology. His vision: Audubon wished “to complete a collection not only valuable to the scientific class, but pleasing to every person.” Rhodes states, “Standard ornithologies, such as they were, depicted stuffed specimens in profile, accurate in fine detail but unrealistic and lifeless.” Audubon was clear about his mission.
“One day whilst watching the habits of [the pewees] I looked so intently on their innocent attitudes that a thought struck my mind like a flash of light, that nothing after all could ever answer my enthusiastic desires to represent nature, than to attempt to copy her in in her own way, alive and moving!” Audubon wrote in his journal. “Then, on I went with forming hundreds of outlines of my favorites, the pewees—how good or bad I cannot tell, but I fancied I had mounted a step on the high mount before me. I continued for months together in simply outlining birds as I observed them either alighted or on wing but could finish none of my sketches.”
Audubon used a pine board that was set up vertically on a table with the artist’s paper and drawing materials in front of the board. The board was marked in a grid, and pins stuck out of the board, which allowed Audubon to impale the bird in any pose desired. A wire underneath a tail would allow the tail to be cocked, and wires similarly situated the bird’s head and wings.
Relative to what passed as bird art at the time, Audubon was very naturalistic. In fact, too much so for the tastes of his contemporaries. “He was wildly criticized by the scientific establishment in the U.S. for his postures and the positions of the birds,” says Burt. “They called it absurd, and they didn’t like that they were set in realistic settings.” The provincial opinions of Philadelphians were soon overruled by art lovers and amateur naturalists in Europe. “The great French naturalist Baron Cuvier… told the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris that Audubon’s work was ‘the most magnificent monument which has yet been raised to ornithology,'” wrote Marshall B. Davidson. He goes on to say that The Birds of America was immediately acclaimed upon publication. The New-York Historical Society organized a public subscription to buy the original 430-plus paintings from Audubon’s widow in 1863, just over a decade following his death in 1851 as a “toothless and grizzled veteran” who was still at work on a folio on mammals, his place in ornithology, naturalism, and art firmly established.
In short, the poses in which Audubon placed birds may not strike us today as being exceedingly natural, but they were miles beyond what was being done in the 19th Century. Audubon and Wilson were not infallible naturalists, but they were the best of their era. In today’s art world, Audubon might once again be seen as “too naturalistic” by some. Then again, today, anything goes.
“I am part of a burgeoning contemporary wildlife art movement that is less constrained by the standard of traditional accuracy,” says Denman. “Having said that, Bob Bateman once said to me that if it’s between the art and the accuracy, the art has to win. It’s not an excuse for half-assed work, but you are allowed to take liberties, as an artist would. Whatever liberties Audubon took are understandable and admirable, and some of those that are really distorted are my favorites. Accuracy is immaterial in terms of what an artist may be trying to do with a piece. Taking anatomic liberties? Within the context of contemporary wildlife art, anything is fair game as long as it makes sense in terms of intent.”
Bird artists who came after Audubon, such as Roger Tory Peterson, were often focused on making reliable and precise field guides to help bird watchers. Audubon seemed interested in presenting a bird in situ, often depicting how two birds interact, what plants and trees it favored as habitat, and what foods it ate. He was also clearly intrigued by the acrobatic flying and perching in which many birds engage. And he spent plenty of time in the field, observing. While other artists may have relied more heavily on stuffed specimens, Audubon was floating down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on a barge, backing through dense cane brakes, hunting with the Osage tribe, and shooting (and usually eating the meat) his specimens. Coe suggests that Audubon could pose one of his bird skins a bit more accurately because of the attention Audubon paid to taxonomic families and genera. “Maybe he learned how a group of birds tends to behave, such as how warblers perch,” says Coe.
So while Audubon may have done the majority of his drawings from birds he hunted and impaled on his gridded board, resulting in a bit of stiffness to a pose, and although the artist was devoted to presenting each bird life size no matter their actual dimensions, his work has a decidedly aesthetic bent to it. Keep in mind that the carcasses of the specimens he collected would putrefy quickly in the heat of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and his other happy hunting grounds. Audubon generally painted his pictures the day he shot each bird. “Audubon was doing all this in the elements—sometime in no more than a lean-to,” Burt says. “It was often all done outside. It’s amazing how he managed to preserve the images in the wild. He and his dog would hunt in a specific area starting at daybreak and then he would return to camp to sketch the colors. The rest of the evening was correspondence. And that held him in good stead during his travels and research.”
As Coe says, Audubon was a master at design. The plates in The Birds of America pull the viewer in with their abundance of information and eye-pleasing lines, curves, and colors. Along the way, the viewer gets a bit of non-verbal education about the birds. For a lucky parcel of about 50 of Audubon’s original drawings, the work is significantly beautified by the drawing and paintings of plants by his assistant and traveling companion, 15-year-old Joseph Mason. The union of Mason’s fine botanical drawings and Audubon’s design sense results in several dozen truly fine plates. Not only are the plates beautiful, but they also place the viewer in the depicted scene.
“I’m really fond of the ones that show predator-prey relationships,” Denman says. “In particular I like the painting of the nightjar [Chordeiles minor], with its big, open mouth trying to catch a moth. It really captures a theatrical and almost gymnastic sort of motion. You have to credit Audubon for that. So many of his plates capture this catapulting sort of image. Think of the Carolina parakeet—the gestures he created for those birds, twisting and turning, is such a lyrical and beautiful description of how parrots move.”
By necessity, Audubon became adept at mixing media to achieve his vision, combining graphite, pastels, watercolor, ink, and other materials on any given piece. Rhodes quotes Audubon’s journal as saying, “One day after having finished the miniature portrait of the dearest friend I have in this world a portion of the face was injured by a drop of water which had dried on the spot, and although I labored a great deal to make amend for this, it was all in vain. Recollection just then that…I had drawn head and figures in different colored chalks, I resorted to a piece that matched the tint intended for the part, applied the pigment, rubbed the place with a cork stump and at once produced the desired effect!
“My drawings of owls, pigeons or herons were much improved by applications of such materials, indeed after a few years of patience some of my attempts began almost to please me and I have continued the same style ever since.”
Rhodes goes on to say, “Audubon probably never saw Albrecht Dürer’s unsurpassed early 16th Century animal studies done in rubbed chalks, inks and watercolor washes, but like Dürer he taught himself to mix media successfully in his search for graphic techniques that might produce lifelike textures and surfaces.”
Audubon was an innovator, in art and in business. Denman values him for even more. “Audubon had considerable impact on conservation, along with dioramas,” says Denman. “The legacy Audubon created was enormous. The Everglades preservation was largely driven by the Audubon Society–snowy egrets were almost wiped out in the Everglades, their feathers used for hats. The single most expensive freight that went down with the Titanic was bird feathers.”
Audubon’s intention was to leave his mark on the art world. His epic work The Birds of America unintentionally did much more. Ω
This fall the newly renovated Cincinnati Museum Center is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its Museum of Natural History & Science. Founded in 1818 as the Western History Society, its doors opened in 1820. Its first employee was famed naturalist and artist, John James Audubon. To help commemorate the 200th anniversary of Audubon’s amazing creative efforts, the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation is sponsoring a unique exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum Center, “In the Audubon Tradition“ Exhibition & Sale… featuring the birds and wildlife of North America, September 12th, 2019 – Jan 5, 2020. The exhibition includes nearly 100 of today’s most celebrated and accomplished painters and sculptors, following in the artistic tradition that John James Audubon began 200 years ago.
GALLERY: Additional images from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.