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Audubon Alive

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

We're looking at Audubon's original watercolor of wood ducks--surely one of his finest works. As a painter, I'd certainly pull out all the stops for one of America's loveliest birds. I love how the sycamore leaves tilt and turn in space, echoing the wing shapes of the birds. Beneath the courting pair, Audubon has pasted a flying drake, cut out from another piece of paper! This is a classic pose for him—not necessarily one we’d see in life, but quite decorative and showing all the salient plumage features. In Michael Harwood and Mary Durrant’s excellent book, On the Road with John James Audubon, I learned that the common mythology that Audubon “wired” his specimens into lifelike poses is not really true. As a kid, I always envisioned him running wires through the dead birds, bending necks and wings like action figures. I have prepared enough museum specimens to know that this would be a really difficult thing to do. Rather, what he did was to pin the dead bird to a board, impaling it if necessary with sharpened wires, then set the board up before his table so he could paint directly from the specimen. This flying duck shows just how a bird pinned to a board might look. Knowing how he arranged his birds goes a long way toward explaining some of the more artfully outlandish poses that got him in so much trouble with his critics. Next time you look at Audubon’s work, envision the birds pinned to a board, and see if that doesn’t come through in their poses. Not all, to be sure--he had great drawing chops. But this flying wood duck is an excellent example.

I want to speak here briefly about “Audubon prejudice,” a curious affliction that began when his work first hit the viewing public, and persists to this day. The tendency to bash Audubon’s work reached a crescendo in the 1970’s, at the height of the wildlife print craze, when every American den had a bald eagle soaring against the Rockies, every feather and every needle on each fir visible, or a howling wolf with every hair delineated. In those times, detail equaled artistry in the opinion of true wildlife print fanatics. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Painter X is absolutely fantastic! Have you seen the DETAIL in his work??” I’ll bite the inside of my cheek and enthusiastically assent. Yep! He’s terrific! All that detail…wow.

A Baltimore oriole by the British painter Basil Ede, showing the every-feather-delineated treatment so popular in the 1970's. If I got a bird into rehab that looked like this, I'd pump him up with biotin and Vitamin E.
I briefly joined the ranks of the detail worshipers, and for a few years I idolized J. Fenwick Lansdowne, Glenn Loates and others whose meticulousness rivaled and, in my current and perhaps more evolved opinion, occasionally overtook their artistry. But I never lost my love for Audubon, and I always hove to him and to his heir Louis Agassiz Fuertes as my north stars for bird painting. Later, the late and sadly missed Robert Verity Clem became a mentor, and he encouraged me to paint what I saw, not what I knew to be there. If a bunch of scapular feathers appeared to be a single mass, paint them that way—we don’t need to see the outlined edge of each feather. Painting a bird that way makes it look sick, out of condition, unnatural. A healthy bird’s feathers blend into one another, smooth as butter. Sure, you know there are a bunch of individual feathers in that mass, but if you can't see them, paint what you see!

While there is detail in Audubon’s work, he also knew what to leave out, and his original watercolors show that. This is just to say that I don’t fully understand why some people continue to denigrate his work. I’ve had people tell me my paintings remind them of Audubon’s, and then backpedal, apologizing, as if they’ve insulted me! Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Maybe it’s the lack of overt feather detail where they want to see it. Maybe it’s the over-the-top, ecstatic poses he sometimes used to liven the compositions. Maybe it’s because they haven’t examined why they feel that way…maybe they think it’s cool to bash Audubon because they’ve heard someone else say it.  Maybe they don’t grasp what a pioneer he was. He was the first person EVER to paint a bird that really looked like the bird.  He ignored, exceeded, blasted right past the stylistic trends of his day--painting shorebirds standing bolt-upright; painting warblers stretched as if on a rack, their bills pointing up--and painted the birds as he saw them in life. I'm not sure I can adequately convey how far ahead of the pack he was. Nobody was painting a wood duck on its nest--they were slapping the bird in profile bolt upright on white paper, or perching them on a little mound of dirt with three sprigs of imaginary grass coming out of it, the bestiary treatment by artists who'd never seen them in real life.  And as I said in my first post, in my opinion he’s still better than 99% of the people painting birds today.

I looked at the carefully camouflaged edge of the cut-out drake. He’d cut out the fine feathers of the crest—he must have had something like a razor blade. I could see where the mandible of the bird had torn off—d’oh! So Audubon painted the rest of it right on the paper he’d pasted it to. And there was his handwriting—a note to Robert Havell. “The Circle around the eye, and the upper Mandible as in the Male above.”

Here’s the male he was referring to. Was the artist lacking the right paints to color that orbital skin? I’m guessing he was. Seeing his handwriting raised the hair on my arms. That, and the pasted image with its torn mandible, somehow made this genius real to me. I hoped he could see me down here on Earth, marveling at the gift he had left for us all. I hope he knows that he’s left a legacy for the ages, undimmed for almost 200 years. And in the care of the New-York Historical Society, where his widow Lucy Bakewell Audubon chose to deposit these works, it will carry forward.

And now, for those of you whose interest in Audubon may have been re-awakened by these posts, I have a present. No, Roberta Olson  and the New-York Historical Society have a present for you. From March 1-May 30, 2013 (tentative dates), every single one of Audubon’s original watercolors—a total of 474 works—will be gathered together at the New-York Historical Society for a public exhibition called Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock.
Not only that, but the N-YHS and Rizzoli is publishing Roberta Olson's new book by the same title, composed of reproductions from the original watercolors, to be released in time for the show. Having spent a giddy morning soaking up Roberta's observations of these paintings she has studied so closely, I already know this is going to be one heck of a book on Audubon.

Mark your calendars! And...See you at the opening! Here end the Audubon posts.

My deepest gratitude to Richard Hendrick, filmmaker, WNET-Thirteen, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The New-York Historical Society and Roberta Olson for allowing me the opportunity of a lifetime.


"He ignored, exceeded, blasted right past the stylistic trends of his day--painting shorebirds standing bolt-upright; painting warblers stretched as if on a rack, their bills pointing up--and painted the birds as he saw them in life. I'm not sure I can adequately convey how far ahead of the pack he was."

I think this says it all.

But on top of that I would add that he had an utterly amazing design sense, predating many in his ukiyo-e type of composition. I was just reading about ukiyo-e today, and how its influence on European art began mid-19th century. I kept thinking that somehow or other Audubon must have seen examples earlier than that. It really is astounding. Who else was composing in such a bold, bold way?

Knowing nothing about art history, I've loved these posts.

I love your passion.

Delicious! Thanks for sharing your experiences with Audubon--it's as though we were there with you in the NY Historical Society Susan E

Posted by Anonymous November 16, 2010 at 3:35 PM

Ah Julie thank you! We recently had a grand reopening of our newly expanded museum here in Erie PA and the curator put together the best exhibit of the museums collection along with collections from nearby museums and institutes. There was one whole room dedicated to birds with original works by Audubon and Peterson. I was in heaven. And it was amazing watching the people gazing at the paintings. Truly inspiring!

Great series!

This weekend I'm going to see one of the original folios on exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art. I'm very excited about that, but the chance to see the originals...that would be fantastic. Hopefully I'll be able to make it.

As a person who's pretty much ignorant about art and techniques, this has been an interesting series. I never realized how some works tended toward over-detail and others showed less, more lifelike. I had, however, followed the cliche of new birders liking photo-field guides while experienced birders prefer illustrations. I still like both -- I love Sibley's illustrations, but you can't beat the photography in The Shorebird Guide for providing in-the-field looks at birds.

Thanks for the education, Julie!

Thanks much for your enlightening insight into the work of Audubon.
And I agree wholeheartedly with you about Robert Verity Clem; his work was beautiful without being what I consider fussy. I bought "The Shorebirds of North America" purely to have his artwork to enjoy. His advice to 'paint what you see, not what you know' is sound advice that is echoed by Dutch bird artist Erik Van Ommen (he has some wonderful videos on YouTube).

I agree with possumlady. I know nothing of art history either. However I have truly enjoyed every last one of these posts!

I love your passion, and I love the paintings!! Both are such an inspiration!

And even more, I love learning about new things from you!! Thank you!


2013, eh? Maybe I'll make it that long. ;) If I do, I might overlook my dislike of The City in favor of a day with JJ.

And, someday (who knows) maybe one with JZ.

Wonderful post Julie, enlightening and inspiring. I can't imagine being in a room with all of Audubon's watercolors. That would indeed be exciting.

I don't know if I will make it to NYC but I await Roberta's book with great anticipation.

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