John James Audubon in the West: The Last Expedition - Mammals of North Americaby Sarah E. Boehme, Ron Tyler, Robert M. Peck, Annette Blaugrund
Millions of nature lovers are familiar with Audobon's exquisite portraits of birds in his great masterpiece, The Birds of America. Less well known yet of immense significance is a second masterwork by the noted artist/naturalista series of illustrations devoted to the four-legged mammals of North America. This spendid volumecreated to accompany/i>
Millions of nature lovers are familiar with Audobon's exquisite portraits of birds in his great masterpiece, The Birds of America. Less well known yet of immense significance is a second masterwork by the noted artist/naturalista series of illustrations devoted to the four-legged mammals of North America. This spendid volumecreated to accompany a traveling exhibition organized by the Buffalo Bill Historical Society, Cody, Wyoming is the most comprehensive study ever made of Audobon's mammal paintings.
The superb draftsmanship and extensive field research that characterize Audobon's famous bird paintings are everywhere evident in the renderings of bison, foxes, deer, and much more. The text, by four noted Audobon scholars, placed Audobon's mammals in the context of his life's work and evaluates his enduring scientific, artistic, and literary legacy.
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"My Style of Drawing"
Audubon and His Artistic Milieu
Captain Jean Audubon was an adventurer, a seafaring man who traveled to distant foreign ports, owned a plantation in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), bought a farm near Philadelphia, traded in sugar and slaves, and made a small fortune in these and other endeavors. His son, the great artist and naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851), was also an adventurer, but of another sort. In his pursuits of observing and recording the birds of North America, he was both innovative and adventurous. It must have been in the genes.
John James Audubon eventually gave up all conventional business enterprises to earn his living as an artist-naturalist, resolving that "Without any Money My Talents are to be My Support and My enthusiasm my Guide in My Dificulties [sic], the whole of which I am ready to exert to keep, and to surmount." With great determination he accomplished the Herculean task of producing a complex print series, The Birds of America (1827-38), comprising 435 ornithological images depicted lifesize in their natural habitats. To conceive of and complete such hand-colored aquatint etchings, printed on the largest paper then availabledouble elephant sheets (39 1/2 by 29 1/2 inches)was unprecedented during the early nineteenth century. Moreover, at the time of the project's completion, Audubon had already embarked on his next grand enterprise, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-48). Audubon's unique achievementsresulted From his energy, his tenacity, and his sense of romance and adventurecharacteristics that, combined with his natural talent, were indomitable.
Born in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue, on April 26, 1785, the illegitimate son of a French chambermaid named Jeanne Rabine who died a few months after his birth, John James Audubon was transported in 1788 to Nantes, France, to be brought up by Jean Audubon's wife. Anne Moynet lovingly accepted the boy and his stepsister, the child of an octoroon woman with whom Audubon senior had also consorted in Les Cayes. By the age of three, the young Audubon had lost his real mother, traveled alone across the Atlantic, and moved in with a new family in a foreign country, circumstances that inevitably shaped his personality.
Audubon's upbringing in France fostered his talents and natural curiosity. He was afforded the training of a country gentleman, including drawing, music, fencing, and dancing, at which he excelled, and a classical education from which, whenever possible, he escaped into the woods to observe nature, collect specimens, and draw. At the age of eleven, John was enrolled in the naval academy at Rochefort-sur-Mer, where he spent three years proving to his father that he was not cut out for a life on the sea. Most likely he received further instruction in drawing at the naval academy. From early childhood he seemed to have been obsessed with documenting and studying wildlifemammals as well as birdswhich he rendered in pastel and graphite on paper.
Pastel was very popular in eighteenth-century France, as both a serious medium for professional artists and one favored by amateurs. Prominent pastelists of the period, Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788), Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715-1783), and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), demonstrated that pastel was an exquisite medium in the hands of professionals. Nevertheless, works in pastels and in watercolors were generally stigmatized as a feminine pastime. Audubon could have seen examples at the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts, which opened in 1801. It is possible that he learned to use pastels at the Free Academy of Drawing in Nantes or through manuals tailored to amateurs. The Audubon family supplied their children with books of various sorts, which may have included such manuals. Probably because of its availability, portability, and facile handling, as well as his access to good models, Audubon preferred pastel in his youth.
Early attemptsfor example, the Belted Kingfisher of July 15, 1808reveal static profile images, which nonetheless are precisely observed and accurately rendered. Some, like the Long-Tailed Mountain Titmouse, dated January 22, 1805, are amateurish, patterned after illustrations he had seen in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière by Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Audubon may also have been exposed to the work of the court painter to Louis XV, Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), whose pictures of hunting scenes of animals and still lifes with game decorated royal palaces and châteaus, as well as Sèvres porcelain and Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries. Audubon's claims that he had studied with Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) cannot be substantiated, and it seems more likely that he was influenced by the prevalent Neoclassical style of clear outlines and geometric compositional framework inspired by David. Given David's importance and popularity in France during Audubon's formative years, it is no wonder the young naturalist chose to associate himself directly with David. Whatever artistic experiences inspired the young Audubon, he soon developed a singular perspective that matured with time.
William Dunlap (1766-1839), the first chronicler of American artists, citing various tales about Audubon's birth, stated that the naturalist himself had written that he "`received life and light in the new world;' but this is little more definite than saying he was born on the globe; he leaves us to fix the spot between the north and south poles; but I understand he gives New Orleans, or at least Louisiana as the place of his birth, and the United States of America as his country." Although Audubon was, in fact, born in the New World, he did not come to the United States until 1803 (the year of the Louisiana Purchase), in order to escape conscription into Napoleon's army. Napoleon was gathering forces to fight the English. France had gone through a bloody revolution not long before, and by 1792 the royal family had been deposed. The heir apparent, the seven-year-old dauphin, had been imprisoned as well, and he was said to have died in 1795, two years after the king and queen were executed. Many people refused to believe the reports, however, and like Audubon's purported association with David, or the question of his birthplace, the naturalist never denied the later rumor that he himself might be the so-called lost dauphin. Nevertheless, in 1812, he became a citizen of his beloved adopted country.
In 1808, at the age of twenty-three, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell, whose family had recently emigrated from England and settled near Mill Grove, the Audubon property on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The young couple left the farm that Audubon's father had asked him to manage for other, seemingly better opportunities in Kentucky, then moved on to Louisiana as Audubon's various business ventures failed. The economy of the United States crashed in 1819, and Audubon declared bankruptcy after losing all of his and Lucy's possessions. With a wife and two sonsVictor Gifford Audubon (1809-1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862)to support (two daughters had died in infancy, in 1817 and 1819), Audubon went into a deep depression. In his desperation he decided to risk his future on his inherent artistic abilities. He had been drawing as a hobby since childhood and had assembled a large number of watercolors of birds. American Ornithology, published between 1808 and 1814 by his precursor Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), was already outdated because of the discoveries of new species. Now Audubon, at the age of thirty-five, and with the encouragement of his stalwart wife, Lucy, decided to improve on Wilson's book. Without the help of this enterprising woman, who virtually brought up and supported their sons alone, Audubon's masterwork might never have been achieved. "My wife determined that my genius should prevail, and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant." While Lucy took care of the family and even assisted in what had become the family business by handling correspondence and other administrative duties, her husband searched for new species of birds, promoted the project, sought new subscribers, and supervised the engraving and publication throughout the twelve years it took to complete. Lucy also taught and served as a governess in order to earn money.
During his formative years, Audubon struggled to improve his drawings. Because he did not have formal academic training, he continually experimented with different techniques in order to best capture the nuances of color and the texture of feathers and fur of the birds and mammals that were his primary subjects. He perfected his ability to translate onto paper a realistic approximation of the wildlife he so keenly observed. He sought the advice of such prominent portraitists as John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840), Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Henry Inman (1801-1846), John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), and the lesser-known John Stein (active 1820s), a Pennsylvania portrait painter from whom he learned to paint in oils. Interestingly, Stein was probably the very same artist who inspired Thomas Cole (1801-1848), a founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting.
For a time, Audubon earned a living by executing portraits in black chalk, such as the one of his friend Nicholas Augustus Berthoud (about 1819), and by painting birds and animals in oil for quick sale or to give as gifts. The portraits sold for between five and twenty-five dollars and are not unlike those by other portraitists of the Federal period such as the French-born Charles-Balthazar-Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852). The strong profile outlines of Audubon's work in this period are also comparable in pose and linearity to his initial treatment of birds.
It took a number of years until artists on this side of the Atlantic established a national style and a national academy (1825). Along with the works of Cole and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), acknowledged founders of the Hudson River School, Audubon's landscape backgrounds can also be counted as precursors of landscape painting in the United States. His hand-colored ornithological prints were as widely disseminated in the octavo edition (1844) as Picturesque Views of American Scenery (1819-21) by Joshua Shaw (1776/7-1860) and Hudson River Portfolio (1820-25) by William Guy Wall (1792-after 1864), which are often cited as informing and influencing American landscape painting.
Audubon could have seen landscapes by such early American painters as Cole and Thomas Birch (1779-1851), whose works were on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when Audubon revisited Philadelphia in 1824. Appreciation of the American wilderness and apprehension for its destruction were concerns Audubon eventually shared with Cole and others. Audubon documented not only birds and mammals but also their natural habitats, recording on paper the beauty of the country as well as the encroachment of civilization. The Snowy Egret of 1832 reveals a hunter (possibly Audubon himself) aiming at the bird, as well as a plantation in the wilderness. The background of this watercolor was painted to Audubon's specifications by George Lehman (c. 1800-1870), the artist's assistant in 1831 and 1832.
It was in 1824, after Audubon had completed a number of watercolors, that he went to Philadelphia to seek an engraver. Philadelphia was then the intellectual and scientific hub of the United States as well as a center for publishing. He must have known of or met Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), the renowned artist-naturalist, who in 1786, in Philadelphia, had opened the first museum in the United States. There, visitors were exposed to natural-history specimens displayed along with portraits of American heroes and presidents and the Exhumation of the American Mastodon, which Peale painted in 1806-8 (now at the Baltimore Museum of Art). We know that Audubon was acquainted with Peale's artist sons Titian Ramsay (1799-1885) and Rembrandt (1778-1860). Titian was at this time working on completing American Ornithology, which Alexander Wilson had left unfinished at the time of his death. (Audubon had met Wilson in 1810 while that artist was promoting his book in Kentucky, and it was then that the idea for Audubon's own ornithological series first germinated.)
Unable to find art engraver in Philadelphia or New York, in part because of his often tactless, abrasive manner, and also because so many of the people he approached were champions of Wilson, Audubon was advised to take his project to England, where engravers were equipped to handle large, complicated serial engravings. He took this advice and arrived in Liverpool on July 21, 1826. Eleven days later his work was exhibited at the Liverpool Royal Institution, to great acclaim. Armed with letters of introduction to influential people who encouraged and aided him, he found an engraver, William Home Lizars (1788-1859), in Edinburgh, Scotland; however, because of a strike by the colorists, Audubon switched to Robert Havell Jr. (1793-1878) and his father in London, where the majority of the work was completed.
Although Audubon had established his mature style before he went to England, he must have been influenced by British art, which was spread throughout the United States by the importation of paintings, prints, and books, as well as by the many English-trained artists working in America. The making of both prints and watercolors was in its heyday in early-nineteenth-century England. It was also a period of great interest in the study of natural history. Pioneering work was being done in the fields of botany and entomology as well as zoology, and the classification of quadrupeds, birds, and plants was established. Many books and treatises were published, and large collections of natural curiosities were assembled. Audubon's work was certainly informed by earlier natural-history books, which were illustrated with beautifully engraved prints, hand-painted in watercolors. The pioneering two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731-48), by the naturalist Mark Catesby (1682-1749), contained 220 etchings of North American flora and fauna and took nearly twenty years to complete. Audubon had also read Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (Philadelphia, 1791), by William Bartram (1739-1823), and had the temerity to criticize it in a moment of overconfidence.
When Audubon arrived in England, the horse portraits of George Stubbs (1724-1806), the romantic animal paintings of Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), the early work of Edward Lear (1812-1888), and the oils and watercolors of the renowned Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) were often on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in London or hung in the houses of some of Audubon's patrons, and they were widely available as prints. Turner produced a collection of closely scrutinized bird drawings for his patrons, the Fawkes family at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire. The five-volume Ornithological Collection contains at least twenty bird drawings by Turner. There is no evidence, however, that Turner had more than a passing interest in natural history. His drawings "impress us with the virtuosity of their technique, but leave us little understanding of the structure of the individual species." It is unlikely that Audubon knew these works, for they were exhibited publicly only once, in 1819, by Walter Fawkes at his London house, and Fawkes died in 1825, the year before Audubon arrived in England. Nevertheless, this linkage of artist with natural-history subjects is one of many examples that attest to period interests.
Stubbs, best known for his precise horse portraits, had some of his images incorporated into natural-history books and even produced his own etched illustrations in The Anatomy of the Horse (1766). These images were widely circulated through the expansion of less expensive methods of publishing.
Landseer, one of the most popular artists of the early Victorian period, specialized in romantic pictures of animals, anthropomorphizing his subjects in a manner that can be compared to that of Audubon. Both were products of their era and painted for audiences that understood and admired the attribution of human qualities to animals, as in Landseer's Jocko with a Hedgehog, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828, and Audubon's Brown Thrasher, 1829, showing the birds defending the eggs in their nest against the invasion of a black snake. Audubon wrote that "a whole party of them instantly rush for the snake to assist in chasing off the common enemy" and show "courage in defending their nest." Audubon's words were meant to inspire compassion and sympathy in the viewer and serve as a lesson of uniting to defeat a common enemy. His empathy with his subjects is corroborated in his portrayal of the courtship of the Passenger Pigeon, 1824, about whom he wrote that "the tenderness and affection displayed by these birds toward their mates, are in the highest degree striking." It is possible that exposure to the animal paintings of the renowned Stubbs and Landseer inspired or informed Audubon's work on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
Within a few years of Audubon's arrival in England, the nineteen-year-old Edward Lear published his first book, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. He also worked on the famous Birds of Europe by John Gould (1804-1881). Lear's bold and accurate drawings of birds and animals were often compared to those of Audubon, but by the time Lear was twenty-five he had abandoned his ornithological work to devote himself to landscape painting.
Although Audubon's style of painting and his interest in natural history are consistent with the time in which he lived, his dedication and persistence in completing The Birds of America and his initiation of a second extraordinary project, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, make him an outstanding figure in the tradition of series publications on natural history. Like Stubbs and Landseer, his work has endured because of his unique artistic ability, his outstanding compositional sensibility, and his technical virtuosity. Less well known than his prints, which are ubiquitous in many bastardized forms, are the extraordinary watercolors made both for exhibition to potential clients and as prototypes for the watercolorists who added pigment to the aquatint etchings pulled by Robert Havell Jr. No matter how trivialized by commercial enterprises Audubon's work has become, it retains its appeal; that is the enduring quality of great art. That he was accepted as an artist in his day is evidenced by the exhibition of his work in Edinburgh at the Royal Institution and the Society of Arts, and by his election in 1833 as an honorary member of the National Academy of Design in New York, a coveted mark of artistic distinction.
Audubon's early drawings are static portrayals of birds in profile placed centrally on the page, standing on what could be called a primal clump of earth or clutching a lichen-covered tree branch. These stiff, unanimated specimens (see pages 12 and 13) are rendered in pastel and graphite. As he matured, he experimented with not only how to set up his models but also how best to depict the nuances of texture and color, the iridescence of feathers, the appearance of soft down, the reflection of light, and the overall look of the living birds. He discovered that the most effective way to capture the natural position of the birds as he had scrutinized and sketched them in the wild was to shoot a large number of specimens, select the best of eachmale, female, young, or those in molting stagewire them into position, and place them on a gridded board for perspective and transference. He had to work quickly before the color of the feathers faded and the birds began to decompose. Although the majority of birds he painted had been studied live, he frequently used skins and mounted specimens for the Quadrupeds. By that time, however, he was able to give life to the skins, with the aid of written descriptions sent by the Reverend John Bachman (1790-1874), the naturalist who was his coauthor, and by others who supplied him with specimens. (Bachman provided not only skins and scientific text, but also focus and drive when Audubon began to deteriorate mentally, probably due to a stroke or, possibly, Alzheimer's disease.)
Just as he finally found a method of working with his models, so, too, did he perfect a style that satisfied his objective to portray wildlife in the most naturalistic manner possible. He evolved from using pastel and graphite alone to incorporating several mediums: watercolor, gouache, oil paint, metallic paint, chalk, ink, and glazes, which he combined with graphite and pastel and even collage. As time went on, probably by the early 1820s, his predominant medium became watercolor, which he layered and mixed with other mediums to achieve complex coloring and depth. In the Great Gray Owl, about 1834, he varied the shades of one colorbrownto reveal the subtle markings of plumage, while in the Magnificent Frigatebird, 1832, he nuanced and made richer the black pigment by using blue pastel highlights and graphite over the painted surface to delineate feathers; the graphite added iridescence. But he would often revert to pastel alone to simulate down feathers, as he did in the baby Turkey Vulture, probably painted at the end of 1820, an image that was never published in the Birds of America.
One of the most interesting characteristics of Audubon's watercolors is the asymmetry of his compositions. This oriental-like aesthetic is visible in the diagonal emphasis of the Magnolia Warbler, 1829; the off-center placement on the page, as in the American Goldfinch, 1824; the cropping of the branch on which the specimens in the Tufted Titmouse, 1822, play; and the simplification of form, as in the Common Tern, first painted in 1821 and revised about 1834. These elements are reminiscent of earlier Japanese, Chinese, and Indian pictures of nature, which were in fact available in prints and on porcelains and decorated furniture found in upper-class homes throughout England and the United States. Audubon seems to have embraced the oriental aesthetic early on; these elements appear in his work of the 1820s. The skewed placement on the paper is not as apparent in the prints, because the backgrounds fill in the empty spaces and frequently camouflage the asymmetry and cropping.
Audubon would lay out the entire composition in graphite, using a light underdrawing just barely visible beneath the paint. Even when an assistant completed the background, the total conception was, for the most part, Audubon's. Toward the end of the project, expediency was necessary, and Audubon relied on written instructions to Havell, such as those found on the Great Gray Owl instructing him to "rise the bird about four inches in the copper, higher than in this drawing and put a landscape below of Wild Mountains and Woods." In this case, Havell did not follow Audubon's background recommendations in the print. In the watercolors the birds were often completed first and the backgrounds added by assistants or by Audubon himself. There is evidence, however, of instances in which the background was painted first, as in the Northern Parula. The stem of the flower, painted by Audubon's young assistant Joseph Mason (1808-1842), can be seen as a pentimento through the body of the bird.
In addition to Havell and Audubon's sons, who grew up working in the family business, three artists assisted Audubon in the making of The Birds of America: Joseph Mason, George Lehman, and Maria Martin (1796-1863). Studio assistants were a common practice in Audubon's day. A fourth, the Scottish artist Joseph Bartholomew Kidd (18081889), was hired to copy Audubon's watercolors in oils for exhibition and sale, but he did not participate in the actual print series. Mason worked with Audubon from 1820, when he was not yet thirteen but already an accomplished botanical artist, until 1822. He was a student of Audubon's in Cincinnati and showed sufficient talent for Audubon to hire him to paint backgrounds for his birds. In a letter to his wife dated May 23, 1821, Audubon wrote that Mason "now draws flowers better than any man probably in America." Mason, who later continued to paint flower pictures and portraits, eventually charged that Audubon did not credit his work properly.
Lehman worked with Audubon in 1831 and 1832. He was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and became a competent but unimaginative professional artist who exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1825 to 1831. His hand is clearly discernible in many of Audubon's drawings of shorebirds, such as the Long-Billed Curlew, 1831, pictured with the city of Charleston, South Carolina, in the background. After he left Audubon's employ, Lehman formed two prominent Philadelphia lithography firms and painted and printed scenes of notable events and portraits of prominent people, including the popular frontiersman Davy Crockett, after a painting by Samuel S. Osgood (1808-1885). Lehman went on to execute the drawings for another natural-history book in 1840.
Audubon met Maria Martin, sister-in-law of the Reverend John Bachman, in 1831. She was a gifted amateur watercolorist who specialized in botanical subjects and assisted Audubon on the floral backgrounds for a number of his later works. Perhaps because she was a woman, Audubon was able to express his sincere appreciation and admiration for Martin's work more easily than for that of his other assistants. He named Maria's Woodpecker in tribute to her, noting, "I feel bound to make some ornithological acknowledgement for the aid she has on several occasions afforded me in embellishing my drawings of birds, by adding to them beautiful and correct representations of plants and flowers."
From about 1840 on, Audubon spent long hours each day working on procuring animal specimens and painting them. He set aside a room in which to work at Minnie's Land, the estate he bought in New York City in 1841. His sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, eventually built their own houses on the property. They also became his closest assistants in the Quadrupeds project. The family business was further interconnected by the fact that Audubon's sons married two daughters of his coauthor, John Bachman. While each son had helped with backgrounds and occasionally with birds in Audubon's first endeavor, they were actually coproducers of the Quadrupeds. Victor provided many of the backgrounds while also attending to the business aspects and supervising the production. John spent almost a year working from specimens in the British Museum and did about half of the animals for the imperial folio edition of the Quadrupeds (1845-48). He also added animals for the octavo edition (1851-54) after his Father became incapacitated by 1847. Audubon's sons maintained independent careers as well, and both were elected to the National Academy of Design, where they exhibited frequently between 1840 and 1862. Victor was primarily a landscapist, and John a portrait painter who sometimes did animals. They collaborated at times, for example on a portrait of their father, about 1841. When Audubon could no longer motivate his sons, it was his coauthor and their father-in-law, John Bachman, whose persistence prevailed. Maria Martin, who became Bachman's second wile, assisted them with the drawing of plants, insects, and sometimes animals.
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