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In 1799, at the age of 19, John James Audubon stood in a cave in Pennsylvania looking at a pair of Eastern Phoebes and had an epiphany: "I looked so intently at their graceful 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, except to copy her in her own way, alive and moving! Then I began again. On I went, forming, literally, hundreds of outlines ... I continued for months together, simply outlining birds as I observed them, either alighted or on the wing".
And so his childhood fascination with drawing birds became his obsession. He wandered the woods and rivers of the wild frontiers of North America shooting, studying, posing, and painting every species of bird he could find, and forty years later the resulting books changed the world of art and ornithology.
It is difficult for modern birdwatchers to conceive of the obstacles he must have encountered during those years. Not only the privations of life on the frontier - cold, insects, dirt, hunger - but also the absence of camera and binoculars, and very few other birdwatchers or books as guides. He carried a shotgun and his art supplies, and literally learned about the birds from scratch, by his own observations, simply watching and trying to detect patterns of similarities and differences.
His near total focus on birds led to several business failures, and to hardships for his family, but he (and his equally undaunted wife Lucy) always found a way to get by, and his passion and total commitment shines through in letters and journal entries. Writing about his time in Louisville, Kentucky around 1810, when he was supposed to be helping his business partner run a dry-goods store, he said "I shot, I drew,
I looked on Nature only, and my days were happy beyond human conception, and beyond this I really cared not."
Bird illustration before Audubon was primarily stiffly-posed profiles of birds, but the goal that Audubon set for himself at age 19 was to recreate the grace and beauty of the living bird on paper. Still, it took many years for him to break free of tradition and develop this new approach.
The two lower birds in plate 141 - northern goshawk (goshawk) on the left and Cooper's hawk (Stanley hawk) on the right - were painted around 1809, just ten years after his epiphany, and show that he was only adding small embellishments to the traditional stiff and flat poses of the time. Twenty years later, in 1829 just after publication of the finished work began, he painted the much more vibrant and dramatic immature northern goshawk at the top of this plate.
This desire to introduce drama and action to his paintings of birds pushed the boundaries, and straddled the line between science and art. His birds are "very demonstrative, even theatrical and melodramatic at times" wrote John Burroughs in 1902. His critics accused him of sacrificing accuracy for dramatic effect, and there is no doubt that he enjoyed and embellished his stories.
When he painted mockingbirds defending their nest (plate 21), he chose a very dramatic predator - a rattlesnake - rising up out of the branches by the nest. His critics pounced, saying that rattlesnakes do not climb trees. But at the same time the birds are scrupulously accurate, and his portrayal of the aggressive and fearless mockingbirds defending their nest perfectly captures that species' feisty personality.
One of Audubon's artistic tricks was to compress several events into a single composition. His painting of yellow-breasted chats (plate 137), with the female sitting on the nest while three males fly and perch above her, is a very unlikely scenario for this relatively solitary species. The painting makes more sense if we imagine that Audubon wanted us to see several time-lapse images of a single male performing its display flight above the nest and later offering food to the female. It tells a detailed story about the birds as individuals, and it is also ornithologically accurate.
One of the most frenetic paintings in the entire collection (plate 76) is the red-shouldered hawk grappling frantically as a covey of northern bobwhite (Virginian partridge) tumble and scatter in front of it. The hawk's pose appears awkward, but each part of the picture makes sense independently, as if the hawk's left foot was recorded a moment before the right foot, and the right wing a moment before the left
It's a disjointed image, not just a moment, but little bits of many different moments, frozen in time; and it is a very effective record of the explosion of motion and sound that must have accompanied such an event.
It is worth mentioning that one reason the hawk's pose looks awkward to modern viewers is that our perception has been informed by a lifetime of viewing photographic images. Audubon and his contemporaries saw the world only through their own eyes, and fast-moving events like a hawk attacking a covey of quail would have been a blur. Audubon could only imagine the details, which is exactly what he did for this and many other paintings. Presumably he posed the birds as naturally as he could to match the impressions he had accumulated in a lifetime of watching. As an artist he also must have been subconsciously selecting the most elegant and dramatic poses - the most appealing - according to prevailing fashions.
But for all of the drama and violence conveyed in such an image, each individual bird is rendered in exquisitely-crafted detail. They are frozen in time so that, even as they are engaged in the elemental struggle for life or death, Audubon encourages us to admire the beauty of their forms and patterns.
Audubon was very aware of viewers' reactions to his work, and of the need to raise money to continue his work, leading Jonathan Rosen to observe that "Audubon, who was always hustling for subscribers for his grand project, was advertising himself and a romantic version of wild America all at the same time." He consciously wore his hair long, slicked it down with bear grease, and dressed in buckskin frontier garb when he called on English society. This had the desired effect. The English were fascinated by this "American Woodsman" with his tales of life in the wilderness, and his startling paintings of birds. His choice, conscious or not, to illustrate birds in their most dramatic and primeval moments, reflecting a world where nature still reigned supreme, merely reinforced the fascination with his paintings and with him.
It was as if he was saying through his art and his presentation: These are not your pastoral English country birds, these are birds of the vast unknown American Wilderness, and I have gone into that wilderness, and tamed them and captured them on this paper so you can all enjoy their beauty. It's no wonder that he found more subscribers in England than in America, and that his work has continued to grow in popularity as the American wilderness recedes into the distant past.
The monumental scope of the work required Audubon's full-time attention for over 12 years. He painted the birds, wrote, oversaw the engraving and the packing of the plates, sold subscriptions in America and Europe, and sometimes even delivered the boxed sets of finished plates to subscribers. In this effort he was helped by his wife, his two sons, and a multitude of friends and assistants who were called upon to do everything from writing and editing text to managing the business to painting vegetation and backgrounds in his plates.
In the end he had painted over 1,050 individual birds (all life-size), in 435 published plates. In addition he co-wrote five volumes of Ornithological Biographies, which included his personal observations of the habits of the birds. He travelled from Florida to Labrador to Texas and to the Dakotas, and he crossed the Atlantic eight times.
Recognition for his accomplishment was immediate. Just after its completion in 1839 a Boston newspaper wrote that The Birds of America was "unrivalled for the boldness almost amounting to temerity with which it was commenced, the perseverance and untiring zeal with which it was carried on, and the fidelity, industry, and celerity with which it has been completed, will remain an enduring monument to American enterprise and science." It is also a monument to the single-minded determination of one man, and the appeal of the paintings is significantly enhanced by the mythology of that man.
The paintings themselves retain the same appeal today that they must have had to the English in the early 1800s - as a record of an exciting and foreign world that we will never see. Each painting is a snapshot of the American frontier. Of course they are a bit dramatic and over-embellished, but each painting tells a story, not just of the life history of the birds, but also of the excitement and wonder that Audubon experienced as he explored the wilderness. Each one has the power to carry us back to the log cabins and candle-lit parlors, and to the frontier where Audubon found such pleasure in envisioning and recreating the birds' stories. And who doesn't love a good story, well-told?
David Allen Sibley