From The Birds of America. Drawn from Nature and published by John J. Audubon. Engraved, printed, colored and published by Robert Havell 1827-1839. Plate 268.
John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. The Birds of America is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed.
From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds. "I felt an intimacy with them...bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life." His father encouraged his interest in nature: "He would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the beauty and softness of their plumage. He called my attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons."
In France during the chaotic years of the French Revolution and its aftermath, the younger Audubon grew up to be a handsome and gregarious man. He played flute and violin, and learned to ride, fence, and dance. A great walker, he loved roaming in the woods, often returning with natural curiosities, including birds' eggs and nests, of which he made crude drawings.
As a mature artist and naturalist Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. When working on a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it His paintings of birds are set true-to-life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast to the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observation.
He worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercoloring, and sometimes used gouache. All species were drawn life size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds' nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles.
Audubon's influence on ornithology and natural history was far reaching. Nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards. Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of Species and also in later works. Despite some errors in field observations, he made a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior through his field notes. The Birds of America is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art. Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies.
Image size: 14.88
Sheet size: 18.50 x 24.25