December 15, 2013

John James Audubon: Artful Birds

Roseate Spoonbill

Being a great admirer of his work, for many years I had a yard sale print of John James Audubon's (1785 - 1851) Roseate Spoonbill hanging in my mudroom. What a wonderful color that bird is! and its wacky beak, green head and red-rimmed eye give it a lively quality. I am not a birder, so it is mainly the art of his prints that I love so much: the powerful compositions and the clarity of form. So I was very happy to receive as a gift* (see note below) Audubon's Birds of America: The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio, with an introduction and notes by Roger Tory and Virginia Marie Peterson. Roger Tory Peterson is the author of essential bird guides; I refer to his Eastern Birds often. He has provided notes on every one of the birds depicted in the 435 plates.

Great Blue Heron, hand-colored print

I am delighted by the elegant compositions in Audubon's plates. In his original "double elephant folio" of The Birds of America of 1838 each bird was shown full size on very large sheets of paper, 39 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches. The grace and tight compositions of many images were necessary in order to fit a large bird at life size within that sheet. Audubon used wire to hold the (dead) birds in lifelike positions. He studied their habits and habitat so as to portray them more accurately, an advance on the ornithology of the time.

Great Blue Heron, watercolor, oil, pastel, graphite,
goauche, black ink and collage on card.

As a painter and sometime printmaker, I am fascinated to see the comparison between one of Audubon's original paintings, now at the NY Historical Society, and what is generally called the "engraved" plate. At the Wikipedia link above I learned that etching was utilized, along with engraving and aquatint. The prints were then hand-colored in watercolor. Audubon was very lucky in his printer, the London firm of Havell, which did an outstanding job of transferring drawing to print. In fact, I feel that the prints have a quality of timeless presence, a simplified yet true sense of form, a great sensitivity in their descriptive lines, that adds so much to the success of the work.

If you are interesting in looking at these prints in great detail, we are very fortunate to have the entire set of Birds of America, along with Audubon's text, Ornithological Biography, online at this website generously provided by the University of Pittsburgh. There you can see close details of the prints, such as this of the Great Blue Heron:

Great Blue Heron detail

Looking at this detail, much of the drawing seems to be engraved, with the tones of beak and grasses added in aquatint. The hand coloring is remarkably fine, though the heron could use a bluer feather color, as in the painting.

Brown Pelican

As I was looking through this volume for images to photograph, I realized that I was most drawn to those of the large birds, whose forms fill the page. In this edition, many of these horizontal images, which would have been printed horizontally on a single sheet in the elephant folio, are printed across two pages, which is why you see the curve of one page meeting another in my photos. Audubon paid careful attention to the edges of the picture plane, with forms coming close or touching those edges, creating a pictorial tension.

Tufted Puffin

Looking at this image, with its plain background, the clarity of outline becomes evident. It is present in all the prints, a quality that makes form more real and at the same time abstracts it; it is more volumetric than, say, that in Indian miniatures, but has a similar effect of a thing that goes beyond naturalism to an essential idea. These puffins also delight me because they're so humorous.

Tufted Puffin detail

I think this bird is marvelous, and it reminds me of the times birds have looked at me with their quizzical expressions, or the one time I saw an owl high on a tree in the woods, who seemed to stare at me with a similar piercing gaze.

American Coot

I love the gesture of this bird as it strides towards the water, its body filling the frame from toe to beak. I thought I would look up what Audubon said about this bird in his accompanying text to Birds of America, Ornithological Biography. You can link from each image from the University of Pittsburgh's online Birds of America to the text Audubon wrote about it. In his chapter on the American Coot, Audubon points out that although the shape of the feet seem strange, they "not only walk with freedom, but can run with great speed when necessary". I also was made clearly aware of the great paradox of his study of birds, something Peterson pointed out in this edition of his work: he killed a lot of birds. He writes "I fired among them, and killed five...." also "On firing at a large group of them that had approached me, they started off in various directions....". And:
At times they congregate in vast numbers, and swim so closely that a hunter in my employ, while on Lake Barataria, killed eighty at a single shot. They are extremely abundant in the New Orleans' markets during the latter part of autumn and in winter, when the negroes and the poorer classes purchase them to make "gombo". 

Snowy Egret

Years ago I taught in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a semester and remember seeing many of these beautiful egrets along the Mississippi River. But because of the demand for their elegant plumes, the birds nearly went extinct; as Peterson describes it in his note on the bird:
The snowy egret....has become the proudest symbol of the National Audubon Society, the great conservation organization that has adopted John James Audubon as its patron saint. ....Where there had been hundreds of thousands of egrets in our southern states there soon remained but a few hundred. The National Audubon Society fought for plumage laws, and to meet the emergency hired wardens. The first Audubon warden in South Florida, Guy Bradley, was shot by plume hunters near Cape Sable in 1905. ...Under protection the egrets and all the other long-legged waders have made a spectacular comeback. 
Reading about this, I remembered Peter Matthiessen's novel Killing Mister Watson which was set in the Florida Everglades in the later 19th century. In it he describes, in the voice of one of his characters, the wanton destruction of the egrets:
Plume hunters never shot cept in the breeding season when egret plumes are coming out real good. When them nestlings get pretty well pinfeathered, and squawking loud cause they are always hungry, them parent birds lose the little sense God give 'em, they are going to come in to tend their young no matter what, and a man using one of them Flobert rifles that don't snap no louder than a twig can stand there under the trees in a big rookery and pick them birds off fast as he can reload.
A broke-up rookery, that ain't a picture you want to think about too much. The pile of carcasses left behind when you strip the plumes and move on to the next place is just pitiful....
Horrifying, isn't it?

Snowy Egret detail

According the Peterson's note, the background of the snowy egret image was a rice plantation in the Carolina low country. I had not known this, but learned in the introduction to this volume that Audubon had several apprentices who painted many of the backgrounds for his birds.

Whooping Crane

The whooping crane is another success story in coming back from the near brink of extinction, though they are still few in number. At this point one might ask why Audubon, who was such an avid hunter, had a conservation society named after him? Peterson describes it this way:
Like so many thoughtful sportsmen since, he eventually developed a conservation conscience. In an era when there were no game laws, no national parks or refuges, when there was no environmental ethic, when vulnerable nature gave way to human pressures and often sheer stupidity, he was a witness who sounded the alarm. 
To mention a formal quality in this print that I love: on both the right and left margins, the body of the crane extends past the boundaries of the background, giving it a sense of grandeur and fullness.

Common Merganser

I enjoy seeing images of birds that I have known personally, such as these mergansers who have shown up once or twice on my pond. The background of wide falls is especially wonderful; the note on the print says it depicts Cohoes Falls in New York state.

White Tailed Tropicbird

The beautiful swoop of tail feathers moves our eye across the space, with the white dramatically contrasting with black feathers....


.....similar to the stunning image of the gyrfalcons. Here the flight is more tense, with the tropicbird more flowing. 

Louisiana Waterthrush

For a final image I thought I'd show one of Audubon's smaller birds, a minimal image of branch, seed, leaf, and bird. Audubon's aim in his great work was to picture and describe all the birds of North America, a similarly ambitious goal to that of Edward Curtis's The North American Indian. Their passion and perseverance have given us works of great aesthetic beauty and deep understanding.

*This post is dedicated to my brother-in-law Dr. William Ross, who gave me this grand book. He is a man of wide ranging intelligence, never-ending curiosity, and with a warm heart. Thanks, Bill!


  1. Thank You Altoon for sharing such wonderful images and your thoughtfully engaging text. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of it, though it's sad to be reminded of how wantonly destructive man once was and often still is, for the sake of a few dollars and inane personal vanity. It's obvious to me that your brother-in-law knows your spirit well.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this post, Lisa and Rich. I had fun working on it, and learned a lot. And yes, it's sad that we still haven't learned our lesson about how to approach the natural world around us.

  3. I did grow up birding. And it took me years and years to learn to like Audubon's images -- they sruck me as posed, melodramatic, and just fake-looking. This isn't how birds look! though the feathers and anatomy, of course, are correct. Maybe they are like ballet. I like them better now. The botanical-moth paintings of Maria Sybilla Merian similary show plants and insects in ways that fill the picture area and please with their compositions.

    1. Susan, they were very lifelike for their time, when bird artists generally painted stuffed birds on a pedestal. I suppose a reason I like them so much is that my sensibility is moved by a more primitive expression; for instance I love early Renaissance painting, the so-called "primitives", but don't at all like late Renaissance into Baroque.