When I think of John James Audubon, I think of an itinerant naturalist/painter, roaming from one drawing opportunity to the next, perhaps carrying a big portfolio of works in progress under his arm. I think about the difficulty of curating paintings like this, what with mice and bugs and fire and rain and mildew. All my original work is either framed or lain away in darkness in secure oaken or metal flat files, groaning now with the weight of the paper within.
How can it be that ALL 470 of Audubon's original watercolors (and with gifts to the New-York Historical Society, four more) have survived intact and in more or less pristine condition to this day? At the height of the Civil War, the Society purchased by subscription all of Audubon's original work from his widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. And it is to Audubon, to her, and to the N-YHS we owe this incredible legacy, this gift beyond value. They all survived, and they are all in one secure place, carefully curated, each one in its own baker's box on shelves in humidity-controlled conditions.
It defies belief, but there they all are, and I was looking at one of my very favorites, if not my favorite, Audubon painting with a magnifying glass and tears starting in my eyes.
The only parrot native to the United States was a beautiful little doozy, Conuropsis carolinensis. Like almost all parrots, it flocked and chattered and squabbled, searching for fruits and seeds in the bottomland forests and croplands of a settling nation.
Audubon's words: " The woods are the habitation best fitted for them, and there the richness of their plumage, their beautiful mode of flight, and even their screams, afford welcome intimation that our darkest forests and most sequestered swamps are not destitute of charms. "
To an orchardist, a rainbow-colored flock of Carolina parakeets descending on a row of peach trees was a most unwelcome sight. Before the days of scare tactics--tapes of distressed birds, played at high volume--before the days of conservation--before it occurred to us that nature may not renew itself inexhaustibly--we shot them. By 1832, Audubon noted that they were declining.
"Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen. At that period, they could be procured as far up the tributary waters of the Ohio as the Great Kenhawa, the Scioto, the heads of Miami, the mouth of the Manimee at its junction with Lake Erie, on the Illinois river, and sometimes as far north-east as Lake Ontario, and along the eastern districts as far as the boundary line between Virginia and Maryland. At the present day, very few are to be found higher than Cincinnati, nor is it until you reach the mouth of the Ohio that Parakeets are met with in considerable numbers. I should think that along the Mississippi there is not now half the number that existed fifteen years ago."
We shot them, and the still-living birds would circle and try to attend to fallen flockmates, so we shot those, too, until there were no more Carolina parakeets anywhere. They made splendid decorations for hats; they were taken for pets; they were simply wasted in every way we could waste them. The last free-flying wild flock was spotted by Frank Chapman in 1904. The last wild specimen, collected in Orlando, Florida in 1913. (Before Disney World, there were ivory-billed woodpeckers in Orlando, too. Must've been a heck of a place before the "Magic Kingdom" replaced the real magic kingdom.)
A pair, Incas and Lady Jane, survived for 32 years in an aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo, the same aviary that had housed Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Lady Jane died in 1917, and Incas followed soon after on February 18, 1918. Another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.
He's got the chaotic psittacine flock dynamic spot-on--bickering, biting, pirating, squabbling, scratching and preening. Parrots are such fun to watch as they constantly relate to one another. The composition flows in a graceful S-curve. Audubon drew his birds directly onto the watercolor paper. I, on the other hand, draw tracing paper dummies, which I Xerox and then cut and tape into endless combinations until I'm satisfied with the composition. Sometimes I'll spend most of a day composing and recomposing a painting, and then come in the next morning and tear it all apart and do it over. when I finally have a composition I like, I put the taped-together construction on a big lightbox and trace my drawings onto the watercolor paper. I cannot imagine creating a composition like this, of life-sized birds, while drawing each one directly onto the paper. Each one is perfect! It boggles my mind.
In the lower tier, a green-headed juvenile, just trying out its own cocklebur pod, but probably still being fed by its parents. Its wings, loosely held to its body; a psittaciphile can almost see them shaking as it begs from its nearby parent.
The lower right bird, just launching itself right at the viewer in a gorgeous head-on shot that shows the blossom-like orange face to perfection.
With a strong light aimed for a few moments, we could see the pencil lines Audubon inscribed over the paint, creating the effect of individual feather barbules. So masterful is his handling of the feather structure and the lights and darks, that each feather seems to lift off the paper and glow with iridescence. It's hard to describe until you see it close up, and it's hard to see when your eyes are full of tears. I was afraid I'd drip on them, so I had to step back. Though I've held their skins in my hand, I know that, through Audubon's incredible hand, this original watercolor is the closest I'll ever be to a live Carolina parakeet.
My own feeble attempt at capturing an extinct bird, 2001. I include it most humbly, to illustrate my point that genius is genius, and transcends time and space. Audubon's birds are alive! and mine are kind of silly by comparison. Like I said, Audubon's the man, forever and always.