Audubon’s Artistic Vision

Book cover for Audubon's Birds of America

Book cover for Audubon’s Birds of America

Update March 6, 2015

If you are in New York City, do not miss Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight, an exhibition of Audubon’s splendid water colors organized by the New York Historical Society from March 6, 2015 to May 10, 2015.

More information on the museum’s website and an interesting article from the New York Times.

In 1820, John James Audubon (1785-1851) challenged himself to sketch and describe all North American avifauna, thus fully embracing his genuine, lifelong passion for birds. The result of a decade spent exploring the wild west was an impressive collection of 435 life-size plates of the various bird species encountered by the self-taught, Franco-American artist and naturalist. His genius has been to give a dynamic representation of living creatures rather than depicting them in a more static, lifeless posture, which was common usage at the time. Audubon’s original concept was rejected by many, and it is in England, not the United-States, that he found positive reception for his unconventional drawings which were eventually published in a book called Birds of America.

His artwork continues to be considered a masterpiece as proven by the considerable auction prices collectors have been willing to pay for the book in the past few years. The complete collection of the fantastic engravings can be seen online on the website of the University of Michigan. The Birds of America was the very first book purchased by the renowned institution in 1839 for $970, a gargantuan sum at the time (nowadays equivalent to some $70,000), especially for a nascent establishment—which was moved to its present Ann Arbor location just two years earlier. Alternatively, the drawings can be viewed on the website of the Museum of Civilization of Quebec.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), male on the left, female on the right. Hand-colored engraving by John James Audubon in circa 1827-1838

Audubon’s work as a naturalist remains particularly valued today. The man was indeed not only a fine observer of nature but, as it turn out, a visionary. Remarks made in his Labrador Diary of 1833 (see below) indicate that he had foreseen the damage that would result from the unsustainable use of natural resources.

His words therefore strongly echo in our modern societies where overconsumption has, sadly, become an ordinary phenomenon, detrimental to nature and therefore to us all:

“We are often told rum kills the Indian; I think not; it is oftener the want of food, the loss of hope as he loses sight of all that was once abundant, before the white man intruded on his land and killed off the wild quadrupeds and birds with which he has fed and clothed himself since his creation. Nature herself seems perishing. Labrador must shortly be depeopled, not only of aboriginal man, but of all else having life, owing to man’s cupidity. When no more fish, no more game, no more birds exist on her hills, along her coasts, and in her rivers, then she will be abandoned and deserted like a worn-out field.”

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