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Audubon's Red-tailed Hawks

Thursday, November 4, 2010

 Watching Roberta open the big black art boxes was like Christmas morning for me. I think she enjoyed it as much as I did—to be able to show original watercolors to a watercolorist who is also an Audubon freak must be really fun. Ohhhh, the redtails. Fighting over the gory, gooey dying rabbit. Yesss.

Not something a lot of folks would want hanging on their wall, what with the guts and the pee, but oh, my! What a thrill to see it in the original art. It was huge! The redtails and rabbit are life size. Just incredible.
Audubon rendered fur beautifully. I was fascinated with the discernable buildup of paint on the rabbit’s eye. Even more interesting was the way the white undertail coverts of the redtail were shining right through the rabbit’s face. I’m not sure what’s  going on here, but it appears that Audubon painted the redtail, then painted the rabbit right over it! You can see the lines of tail feathers on the bunny’s lower lip. I suspect that over time an ingredient in the white paint on the hawk's undertail coverts (zinc? lead?) has oxidized, allowing it to shine through the overpainted rabbit.

Commenter Hap in New Hope MN pointed out what looks like the letter A on the rabbit's mandible. What's with that? I doubt that Audubon would have signed his work with an initial in a dying rabbit's mouth. I think, rather, that it is a perhaps misdrawn tooth that has been made more obvious by the oxidizing white paint--the same bugaboo that lets the hawk's tail feather edges show through the rabbit's jaw. I dug up a photo of a cottontail skull from

Rabbits don't have teeth on the mandible until you get to the grinding molars. It looks to me like Audubon may have been a bit indecisive about just where the lower incisors would go. I think I see them, properly occluding the upper incisors, but they're not fully rendered.  So perhaps that's why he left the "A"  just as a pencil outline. And oxidizing paint threw it into relief. But that's just my guess. Other guesses are welcome. A little code letter for engraver Havell? Who can say?

This is a nasty fight over a big prey item. Beautifully rendered feet and talons, with foreshortening…could the lower bird have pierced the upper bird’s heel pad with its talon? Flowing blood suggests so.

Look at how Audubon merely suggested the fluffy white shank feathers of the redtail with a few pencil lines—shorthand for engraver Robert Havell, who would fill in the blanks as he saw fit. 

JJA has a male, top, and a female beneath, and he’s got the size proportions correct—female buteos are as much as 1/3 larger than males. It’s clear to me Audubon had some gorgeous, freshly killed birds to work from—the beautiful flow and lay of the wing feathers say fresh bird to me. I love the shadow of the male hawk’s right wing on his tail. But see those grayish drops on the central tail feathers? Roberta speculated that it could be tea. There is tea on several Audubon originals. They were given to the colorists who hand-colored the elephant folio plates, and while knocking about in the studio, the originals sometimes got things spilled on them. Yikes. I’d hate to be the painter who spilled tea on that translucently lovely tail.

This is one of Audubon's finest birds, I think, lovingly rendered from a freshly killed specimen. Which lives on, two hundred years later. While it's sad that it had to die, that's a high use for a redtail, to be sure.


Thanks for this, Julie. It never occurred to me that Audubon was a real person: I only know about Peterson. I bet the originals were incredible! Thank you for offering this insight.

Julie, I would love to see those in real life! You are a very lucky woman. The history, the skill and beauty are amazing.

Diane Soucy

very interesing. amazing detail on the paintings. something i would love to be able to do.


Well, you know I'm all over this like white on rice.
I can't stop looking at the photos...with my nose nearly touching the screen. The rich red of the tail, the talons that leap from the canvas, and yes, the guts and the pee. I'd be peeing too if I was that bunneh.
As I type this, a beautiful watercolored red-tailed hawk looks over my shoulder...lovingly rendered by a lovely woman I know.

Amazing series!! Thank you for
sharing these with us. Is it my
imagination, or is that an A on
the lower lip of that unfortunate
Hap in New Hope (MN)

Posted by Anonymous November 4, 2010 at 5:51 PM

Good eye, Hap! It's either an A, or it's a bunny tooth that was drawn and then not painted...I don't know. Whatever it is, it's odd. Maybe Roberta will know something about it.

I am just speechless, really. His original works are simply magical. Thanks so much for sharing!

Freshly killed? By whom? For what purpose? This disturbs me.

Posted by Anonymous November 5, 2010 at 5:51 PM

Audubon himself shot the birds he drew from. In the days before binoculars and spotting scopes and cameras, (nearly two centuries ago), shooting birds was the only way to obtain specimens from which to draw. The paintings are beautiful because they represent a direct translation of what he saw before him--a gorgeous, freshly-shot specimen. Anonymous, I'm sorry it's disturbing to you, but it's the only way to get a painting like this one. I've made many a death study from birds killed on the highway or by flying into windows. There's nothing like drawing from life (or death). And it's a high use for a red-tailed hawk, to be memorialized by a genius like J.J. Audubon.

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