Look Back: Art History

Art and Science 5: John James Audubon and his American Birds

Guest post by Edward Spencer

I like birds… I am not sure when this interest took hold, but I feel that there is something soothing and comforting about watching the little guys potter about. Their lives seem so beautifully simple yet each one has its own complex story. I also think that they add an additional element to art and photography, providing a focal point to a landscape, reflecting the mood of certain scenery or weather or just providing a way to show off your skills and perseverance. Therefore, when I became interested in photography, birds became my top challenge.

Some of my more successful photographs. - 1) Heron - Washington State, USA. 2) Little Gulls - London, UK. 3) Great Tit - Stockholm, Sweden. 4) Alpine Chough, Wengen, Switzerland.

Some of my more successful photographs. – 1) Heron – Washington State, USA. 2) Little Gulls – London, UK. 3) Great Tit – Stockholm, Sweden. 4) Alpine Chough, Wengen, Switzerland.

So when asked to write a post on art and science my brain quickly went to John James Audubon (1785-1851), the French-American painter, adventurer and birder who sailed into Britain in 1826 with his great work, the ‘Birds of America’.

ohn James Audubon, painted at Minnie's Land in 1841 by John Woodhouse Audubon and Victor Audubon for Lewis Morris (44 x 60 in), image #1822. Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library, New York, New York.

John James Audubon, painted at Minnie’s Land in 1841 by John Woodhouse Audubon and Victor Audubon for Lewis Morris (44 x 60 in), image #1822. Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library, New York, New York.

This fantastic book consists of the life-sized portraits of around 500 different bird species that were printed on 40-inch sheets and hand-painted on assembly lines for all to buy – providing you could afford the printing fee, which in today’s money came to about $2 million.

Southerby’s employees cautiously examine volumes of the Birds of America…and if my eye is not mistaken I believe that they are currently viewing the Carolina Parakeet, the Snowy Owl and the American Stork

Southerby’s employees cautiously examine volumes of the Birds of America…and if my eye is not mistaken I believe that they are currently viewing the Carolina Parakeet, the Snowy Owl and the American Stork

But is Audubon more important as an artist or a scientist?

Wild Turkey, female with young, #288 Stone Lithograph with original hand-coloring Approx. 7" x 10"

Wild Turkey, female with young, #288, Stone Lithograph with original hand-coloring, Approx. 7″ x 10″

Well, although the answer is undoubtedly both I am going to lean on the side of science and play devil’s advocate to this art blog. And I do so for the following reasons:

1. Audubon spent far more time studying in the field than he did in the art studio. In order to produce the Birds of America he spent 14 years studying and drawing birds across the continent. This extensive research led to the successful identification of no less than 25 new species.

After Audubon, Print by Robert Havell Blue Jay (Plate CII) Corvus cristatus engraving with etching, aquatint and hand-coloring, circa 1830, on J Whatman, framed P. 25 3/8 x 20¼ in. (645 x 514 mm.)

After Audubon, Print by Robert Havell, Blue Jay (Plate CII) Corvus cristatus, engraving with etching, aquatint and hand coloring, circa 1830, on J Whatman, framed, P. 25 3/8 x 20¼ in. (645 x 514 mm.)

2. Audubon’s illustrations provide insights into the behaviour of each bird species and the diverse climates and landscapes of North America. Take, for example, his painting of the Green Herons, in which he shows one scampering after a Luna Moth while a rather worried-looking male youth tries to hide under some local vegetation. Many paintings like this informed viewers how each species lived and interacted with their own native environments.

Hand-coloured engraving, 1835 - 1838, © Natural History Museum

Hand-coloured engraving, 1835 – 1838, © Natural History Museum

3. The Birds of America provides some of the best existing documentation of a number of species that have since become extinct. Yes, more than just the poor dodo have become extinct in recent history …these include the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (below), the Carolina Parakeet (whose scarily similar relatives appear to be taking over London) and the Passenger Pigeon (which scientists plan to re-introduce to the world in clone form…because we need more pigeons apparently).

Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Color engraving by R. Havell, after drawing by John J. Audubon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Color engraving by R. Havell, after drawing by John J. Audubon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

4. Audubon’s research left a legacy of scientific intrigue and awareness in North America that has helped conserve some of the world’s rare species. His book provided the first extensive reference guide for the identification of new species and raised alarms for those in decline. As a consequence the popular pastime of bird shooting evolved into the sport of birding – the strangely addictive hunt for different species that is sometimes taken a little too seriously.

This is pretty much how I imagine myself in 10 years’ time; luckily I’m still at the half-hearted ambling stage and have better things to do than build a rather unconvincing replica swan!

This is pretty much how I imagine myself in 10 years’ time; luckily I’m still at the half-hearted ambling stage and have better things to do than build a rather unconvincing replica swan!

In 1830, after publishing Birds of America, Audubon was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose ranks include Darwin and Oppenheimer to Duke Ellington and Alec Guinness. This fitting appointment sums up the man, although I believe that it was his inner scientist that created the legend. Copies of Birds of America now sell for over $10 million, with one copy placed as the 3rd most expensive book of all time (behind The Gospels of Henry the Lion and The Codex Leicester).

In my opinion, worth every penny.

Audubon, Bald Eagle from Birds of America, London: 1827-1838 Color plate 359.

Audubon, Bald Eagle from Birds of America, London: 1827-1838
Color plate 359.

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3 thoughts on “Art and Science 5: John James Audubon and his American Birds

    • I’m glad you liked it. It was fun picking out some prints from the book to put in. No shortage of great paintings and definitely worth putting on the wish list.

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