Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Admiring the Feathered Race: John James Audubon’s Birds of America

I am persuaded that alone in the woods, or at my work,
I can make better use of the whole of myself than in any
other situation, and that thereby I have lost nothing in
exchanging the pleasure of studying men for that of
admiring the feathered race.
John James Audubon, a passionate 18-year-old Frenchman, born in Haiti and raised in France by his father and adoptive mother, arrived in America in August of 1803. Fleeing conscription into Napoleon’s army, Audubon came to America to manage Mill Grove, a farm outside of Philadelphia, which was owned by his father, Jean. Even though his affinity for birds and passion for creating art had long been developed in France, Mill Grove was vital to his growth as an ornithologist and artist. He often wandered the grounds and woods drawing and observing the birds he encountered.

Owing to the difficulty of accurately illustrating and studying live birds – cameras had yet to be invented –Audubon was forced to hunt and trap his specimens. He devised a method for mounting the birds onto sharpened wires attached to a wooden board, which allowed him to position them into lifelike poses and to
better depict the details of their plumage. Audubon was also interested in the behavioral patterns of birds, and Mill Grove became the setting for the first recorded bird banding experiment in America. Here he tagged a pair of Peewee Flycatchers by attaching a light silver thread to one leg of each bird to see if they returned to the same nest every year. The following year he was delighted to discover that they did, in fact, return.

The year 1808 brought with it a marriage to Lucy Bakewell, the loss of Mill Grove, and a move for the newlyweds to Louisville, Kentucky. There, Audubon opened a mercantile business; one of many partnerships and enterprises he entered into through the years. After Louisville, the Audubons moved downriver to Henderson, KY, where John James and his brother-inlaw built a flour mill. Audubon’s companies went under in the Panic of 1819 and the family lost everything; Audubon was even briefly thrown into debtor’s jail before he declared bankruptcy. Upon his release the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Audubon drew portraits, opened a painting school, and painted exhibit backgrounds and did taxidermy for the Cincinnati Museum.

Lucy was stalwart throughout the shared professional and personal triumphs and setbacks – while the Audubons were blessed with two sons they had lost two infant daughters. Of Lucy, Audubon said,
She felt the pangs of our misfortunes
perhaps more heavily than I but never for
an hour lost her courage; her brave and
cheerful spirit accepted all, and no
reproaches from her beloved lips ever
wounded my heart. With her was I not
always rich?
With his wife’s support and blessing, Audubon realized his artistic talents and decided to pursue his desire to
draw all of the birds in the eastern portion of North America.

In mid-October of 1820, Audubon and Joseph Mason –the best student from his painting school – set out for Louisiana to collect specimens and draw birds for what would become his life’s work: Birds of America
(1827-1838). Following five years of research, Audubon determined that he had amassed a portfolio of
drawings substantial enough to begin the search for an engraver. His desire to depict his birds accurately in
both size and likeness resulted in large scale drawings – they required double elephant folio sized paper.
Consequently, no engraver in America possessed the materials necessary to produce the prints. Europe was
the only place where supplies were readily available; so,Audubon sailed for Liverpool in May of 1826.

Audubon was armed with letters of introduction from prominent members of American and European society and he soon found friends and support for Birds of America. Europeans were also fascinated by the wild look of the “American Woodsman” – a name he coined for himself – and his exciting tales about the American frontier. These new connections influenced the Liverpool Royal Institute to exhibit Audubon’s bird paintings. The show was an overwhelming success and brought him considerable press and support – both emotionally and in the form of subscriptions to Birds of America.

With his spirits lifted by the outpouring of praise, Audubon traveled to Manchester and Edinburgh, Scotland, to advertise and secure more subscribers for his book. In Edinburgh he was introduced to William Home Lizars – the man who would become the initial engraver for Audubon’s book. Unforeseen difficulties concerning Lizars’ colorists forced the dissolution of their partnership a few months after it started. Audubon quickly found a replacement engraver in London, his new headquarters. Robert Havell, Sr. and his son, Robert Havell, Jr. began engraving Birds of America in 1827; the senior Havell retired in June of 1828, at the age of sixty, leaving his son to see the project through to completion.

Over the next decade, Audubon continued to travel throughout Europe and America to find subscribers for Birds of America. Additionally, a few trips between England and America were necessary; first to collect his wife and rescue his marriage, which had been subjected to the hardships of the couple’s long separation, and subsequently, to draw and research new birds for inclusion in future bundles of the book.

Upon the conclusion of Birds of America, the Audubons returned to America in 1839, and soon after, the family moved to a fourteen acre plot on Manhattan Island; named Minniesland, after Lucy. To create financial security, Audubon released an octavo edition (so called because it is an eighth of the size of the Havell Edition) of his book in America, which was easier to handle and more accessible for the general public. Along with his friend, John Bachman; and his sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford, Audubon began to research and draw for another book: Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Realizing that the expansion of America into the west was fast approaching, Audubon desired to see that portion of the country in all its untouched glory. Although fifty-seven-years-old, Audubon felt he had one last great expedition in him. Thus, in 1843, he spent eight months exploring the West. Audubon returned to
Minniesland with little desire to paint. He had drawn more than half of the 150 species that were included in Viviparous Quadrupeds, but he left his son, John, to finish the rest; the first edition of the book was released in 1845. In 1847, Audubon slipped into dementia and passed away on the 27th of January 1851 at sixty-five years of age.

For Lucy, all was lost with Audubon’s death; she felt that “…all but the remembrance of his goodness is gone forever.” However, Audubon’s place in history was secure. His skill as an artist and lively compositions revolutionized the standard for ornithological illustration, a previously stiff and static field. Ornithological Biography (1831-1839), the companion book to Birds of America, contained observations of birds mingled with entertaining stories of Audubon’s travels. The two books together not only pleased most scientists but also stimulated interest in and admiration for birds in the general public. Birds of America, with its beautiful, life-sized engravings of 435 bird species, helped to establish and perpetuate Audubon’s legacy as an ornithologist, artist, and environmentalist.