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"To Follow Nature in Her Walks": The Art and Environmentalism of John James Audubon

June 1 - August 13, 2006

 

 

(above: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Snowy Heron (White Egret), 1835, Plate CCXLII, Hand colored aquatint etching. Engraved, printed and colored by R. Havell. 25 3/4 x 20 1/2 inches. From The Birds of America double elephant folio, c. 1827-1838. Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the National Audubon Society)

 

"To Follow Nature in Her Walks": The Art and Environmentalism of John James Audubon, an exhibition of the four elephant folios of Audubon's Birds of America series of engravings, will be presented at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College from June 1 - August 13, 2006 in the Upper Gallery. It is a collaborative celebration with the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, the historic site of Audubon's Pennsylvania residence from 1803 to 1806.

The installation will include individual framed images, proof plates marked by the artist for corrections, and original copper plates used in the printing of the volumes. The exhibit both celebrates the creative process of the artist and highlights environmental and preservation issues, an important aspect of Mill Grove's mission.

According to both Lisa Hanover, director of the Berman Museum, and Jean Bochnowski, Mill Grove director, The Birds of America is the single greatest ornithological work ever produced. It is the realization of Audubon's dream of traveling through the United States (except for the far west) recording, in their actual size, every native bird then known. The 435 page double-elephant folio sized plates, printed by the Havell of London, depict some 457 different species, plus one hybrid, and five so-called birds of mystery or mutations, the majority drawn from specimens that Audubon himself had captured. The Havell edition, and individual plates, are rare today, and when they appear on the market, are expensive.

In addition, The Eagle and the Lamb, a rare Audubon oil painting, will return to Montgomery County for this exhibition. It was removed from Mill Grove in 2004 for restoration work.

 

 

 

(above: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Greater Flamingo,  1838, Plate CCCCXXXI. Hand colored aquatint etching. Engraved, printed and colored by R. Havell. 38 1/4 x 25 5/8 inches. From The Birds of America double elephant folio, c. 1827-1838. Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the National Audubon Society)

 

 

 

(above: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Little Screech Owl (Mottled Owl), Plate 97, (Original painted in New Jersey, 1829). Hand colored, aquatint etching. Engraved, printed and colored by R. Havell. From The Birds of America double elephant folio,  c. 1827-1838. Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, from Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Pennsylvania. Photography by Robert Hall)

 

 

 

(above: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Blue Bird,  1831, Plate 113,  (Original painted in Louisiana, 1822). Hand colored, aquatint etching. 42 1/2 x 31 inches. Engraved, printed and colored by R. Havell. From The Birds of America double elephant folio, c. 1827-1838. Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, from Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Pennsylvania. Photography courtesy of the National Audubon Society) 

 

Text panels from the exhibition

The Birds of America: "The Greatest Monument Yet Erected By Art to Nature"
 
In 1838, John James Audubon (1785-1851) published the final installment of the double elephant folio engravings for The Birds of America. The first installment had been issued in 1827; in 1828, the internationally influential French zoologist Georges, Baron Cuvier (1769-1832) declared Audubon's drawings and watercolors, on which the engravings were based, "the greatest monument yet erected by art to nature."
 
The published version of this "monument" encompassed more than 400 engravings issued to subscribers in sets of five prints each. The list of nearly 160 subscribers ranged from individual booksellers, scientists, historians, and other private collectors on both sides of the Atlantic; to institutions of higher learning such as the University of Edinburgh and Harvard University; to learned societies such as the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia; to monarchs and governmental bodies including the King of England, the King of France, and the Congress of the United States. The engravings, in the aggregate, comprised the contents of four huge volumes of double elephant folio format, original editions of which are displayed in this exhibition. Double elephant folio sheets ­ approximately 27 by 39 inches in size ­ provided the largest format available for books and prints in the 19th century, and because of the scale and related expense, were a rare format indeed for publication.
 
The Birds of America represented the culmination of decades of work on the part of the artist himself and almost fifteen years of collaboration with others. Audubon's collaborators on the project included trained naturalists who assisted him in editing and verifying the scientific accuracy of his work; other artists who contributed flora and fauna to the backdrops of Audubon's own drawings (and, in some cases, even completed some of Audubon's own bird drawings); engravers who translated his drawings and paintings into reproducible and therefore publishable form; his two sons, who assisted in the marketing and selling of the subscriptions that paid for the publication of the work; and many others who supported and fostered the long process of bringing the project to fruition.
 
 
The Birds of America: Audubon's Engravers
 
Determined to present his drawings of American birds in a format that would permit him to depict even the largest birds life-sized, Audubon's search for engravers to translate his drawings and paintings into publishable form led him to England in 1826. He had begun his search in Philadelphia ­ the intellectual, scientific, and publishing center of his adopted country ­ two years earlier, but had found no one willing to take on a project of the size and scope he envisioned, and was prompted by other artists to try his cause overseas.
 
In November 1826, Audubon contracted his first engraver, William Home Lizars (1788-1859), who had been recommended to him as the finest engraver in Edinburgh, and was at the time doing the engravings for two other ornithological works, including an edition of American Ornithology by Audubon's rival, Scottish artist Alexander Wilson. Lizars was only able to complete ten plates before his shop was brought to a standstill by striking colorists. Audubon transferred the contract to a London-based firm of engravers, Havell & Son. Audubon wrote in a letter to his wife in November of 1827 "Mr. Lizars himself is struck with the superior beauty of the work done in London, as much as with the cheapness of it. He promised to me that if I would give him a small part of the work to execute, that he would do it at the same price, and on the same style as my London Engraver."
 
Audubon, however, retained Robert Havell Senior and Junior throughout the remainder of the project. Indeed, he is said to have forged a lifelong friendship with the younger Robert Havell (1793-1878) and evidenced his remarkable respect for the painter/engraver by deferring to his judgment on occasion regarding the color and composition of the later plates for The Birds of America.
 
 
"Cleaving the air like an eagle": Audubon In Pursuit of The Birds of America
 
In Audubon's introduction to the final volume of his Ornithological Biography (1831-1839), a textual companion to The Birds of America that he wrote in collaboration with the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray (1796-1852), the artist utilized the figure of the eagle as a means of conveying metaphorically his experience through decades of work to capture the lives and likenesses of birds in his magnum opus.
 
"[Thousands] of melodious notes from birds all unknown to me urged me to arise and go in pursuit of those beautiful and happy creatures. Then I would find myself furnished with large and powerful wings, and cleaving the air like an eagle, I would fly off and by a few joyous bounds overtake the objects of my desire.... Many times indeed have such thoughts enlivened my spirits; and now, good reader, the task is accomplished. In health and in sickness, in adversity and prosperity, in summer and winter, amidst the cheers of friends and the scowls of foes, I have depicted the Birds of America, and studied their habits as they roamed at large in their peculiar haunts."
 
 
Audubon's Working Process: From Seeing to Drawing
 
Audubon wrote in 1828 that "Having studied drawing for a short while in my youth under good masters, I felt a great desire to make choice of a style more particularly adapted to the imitation of feathers than the drawings in water colours that I had been in the habit of seeing,... [to adopt] a different course of representation from the mere profile-like cut figures, given usually in works of that kind. The first part of my undertaking proved for a long time truly irksome. I saw my attempt flat, and without that life that I have always thought absolutely necessary to render them distinguishable from all those priorly made...."
 
He ultimately defined his own compositional conventions as counterpoint to the tradition of natural history illustration that originated in medieval herbals and bestiaries. These depicted their subjects singly, isolated from any surroundings (natural or otherwise) so as to further emphasize the taxonomical character of their representation. Audubon acknowledged that "closet naturalists would expect drawings exhibiting, in the old way, all those parts that are called by them necessary characteristics, and to content these gentlemen I have put in all my representations of groups always either parts or entire specimens, showing fully all that may be defined of those particulars."
 
Yet through his insistence on infusing his drawings with "that life" described in the passage above, Audubon moved fairly soon from a more traditional approach of killing, stuffing, and then drawing his birds to drawing "after individuals fresh killed, mostly by myself, and put up before me by means of wires, &c. in the precise attitude represented."
 
 
Audubon's Working Process: Capturing the "Semblance"
 
Audubon's account in his Ornithological Biography of the lengths to which he had felt compelled to go in order to capture the "semblance" of a gold eagle is both highly disturbing and extremely revealing of the inner turmoil that the artist, himself, experienced as he undertook his life's work.
 
"I placed the cage so as to afford me a good view of the captive and I must acknowledge that I felt towards him not so generously as I ought to have done. At times I was half inclined to restore to him his freedom, that he might return to his native mountains; nay, I several times thought how pleasing it would be to see him spread out his broad wings and sail away towards the rocks of his wild haunts; but then, reader, someone seemed to whisper that I ought to take the portrait of this magnificent bird, and I abandoned the more generous design of setting him at liberty, for the express purpose of shewing you his semblance.... [On] the third [day] [I] thought of how I could take away his life with the least pain to him. I consulted several persons on the subject.... [We] spoke of suffocating him by means of burning charcoal, of killing him by electricity, &c., and we concluded that the first method would probably be the easiest for ourselves, and the least painful to him. Accordingly the bird was removed in his prison into a very small room, and closely covered with blankets, in to which was introduced a pan of lighted charcoal, when the windows and door were fastened, and the blankets tucked in beneath the cage. I waited, expecting every moment to hear him fall down from his perch; but after listening for hours, I opened the door, raised the blankets and peeped under them amidst a mass of suffocating fumes. There stood the Eagle on his perch with his bright unflinching eye turned towards me and as lively and vigorous as ever!"
 
Having added sulfur to the smoldering coal, Audubon recounts, "We were nearly driven from our home in a few hours by the stifling vapors, while the noble bird continued to stand erect and to look defiance at us whenever we approached his post of martyrdom." Finally, Audubon resorted to "a method always used as the last expedient.... I thrust a long pointed piece of steel through his heart, when my proud prisoner instantly fell dead without even ruffling a feather. I sat up nearly the whole of another night to outline him.... ...The drawing of this Eagle took me fourteen days, and I had never before laboured so incessantly excepting at that of the Wild Turkey."
 
 
Audubon's Working Process: Multiple Media
 
In 1990, conservators at the New York Historical Society closely examined more than 300 of Audubon's drawings for The Birds of America. Their analysis revealed certain aspects of Audubon's working process. For instance, Audubon made use of multiple media in all of his drawings. These ranged from the simplest combinations of pastel and graphite (pencil) or watercolor and graphite to complex, interlayered combinations of watercolor, graphite, pastel, oil paint, gouache, chalk, ink, overglazing, and collage. Audubon consistently employed an under-drawing of graphite, probably the "outlining" process described in his account of the golden eagle. In all cases, Audubon appears to have used whatever media he had at his disposal (or those who helped him in finishing some of his drawings had at their disposal) to achieve the most effective "semblance" possible of the natural textures, highlights, and colorations represented for his viewers.
 
 
Audubon's Working Process: From Drawing to Engraving
 
To achieve the translation of his drawings into the reproducible medium of engraving, Audubon regularly shipped or delivered his drawings to his engravers in London, where they were retained for a sufficient period of time for both engravers and colorists to accurately reproduce them. Audubon and his son Victor oversaw by turns the production of the etched plates in London. The artist's marking up of proof sheets (as in the example included here of the marked up proof sheet for the Vigors Vireo) is a material reflection of the give-and-take involved in the laborious process of transferring the artist's vision and documentary specificity from his drawings to the etched, hand-colored, published product. Lucy Audubon wrote to her cousin in 1831, "It is possible that our eldest will return with us to England, for we almost require a person to manage the traveling and writing of the work while Mr. A. is engaged at home superintending the Colouring, printing, pressing, etc."
 
 
Local History
 
In 1803, Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon (whose name was Americanized as John James Audubon) was sent from France to the United States by his father to avoid the eighteen-year-old's conscription into Napoleon's army. Jean Audubon had purchased an estate in Pennsylvania in 1789, and it was to this estate ­ Mill Grove ­ that he sent his son along with a guardian to assist him in managing his property.
 
The young Audubon would become somewhat notorious for his feverishly imaginative writings about his own life that may have reflected myth in equal proportions to fact. Nonetheless, much of what we know of his life and work we know from his letters, autobiographical sketches, articles on his working process, and copious journal entries, many of which were transcribed, edited and in some cases expurgated by his granddaughter Maria Audubon. He wrote the following about Mill Grove:
 
"In Pennsylvania a beautiful state almost Central on the line of our Atlantic Shores, my Father in his constant desire to prove my friend through life gave me what Americans denominate a beautiful plantation refreshed from the Summer heat by that clear Stream the Scuilkill [sic] River as well as traversed by a Creek named Perkioming [sic] fine arable and wood land."
 
Although Audubon was not "given" Mill Grove by his father as his biographical note above suggests, he did move into the house at Mill Grove in the spring of 1804. He would write later that "Mill Grove... was ever to me a blessed spot." It was certainly where Audubon began to cultivate in earnest those interests in natural history and ornithological study, practiced in tandem with his artistic endeavors, that would ultimately lead to his life's work and the development of his international reputation as an artist-naturalist of the first order.
 
It was also in the spring of 1804 that Audubon experimented for the first time with "banding" birds. Having discovered some phoebes nesting in a cave on the banks of the Perkiomen Creek on the Mill Grove estate, Audubon sought to investigate the migratory patterns of these birds. (It is notable that in so doing, he anticipated by at least a century the practice of banding birds carried out to this day by the Bird Banding Society of America and other ornithological investigators as a means of documenting and compiling migratory data.) Audubon wrote in the second volume of his Ornithological Biography that "[the threads he used to band the legs of the nestling phoebes] they invariably removed, either with their bills, or with the assistance of their parents. I renewed them, however, until I found the little fellows habituated to them; and at last, when they were about to leave the nest, I fixed a light silver thread on the leg of each [nestling], loose enough not to hurt the part, but so fastened that no exertion of theirs could remove it." So it was that the amateur naturalist and environmentalist John James Audubon took his first steps toward his future career a mere ten miles or so from where we stand today.
 
 
John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1787-1874)
 
The young Audubon met his wife-to-be while he was in residence at Mill Grove; the two were engaged to be married by the close of 1804. Audubon described his first meeting with the English-born daughter of his wealthy neighbor William Bakewell at Bakewell's estate, Fatland Ford, a quarter mile from Mill Grove:
 
"Well do I recollect the morning, and may it please God that I never forget it, when for the first time I entered Mr. Bakewell's dwelling. It happened that he was absent from home, and I was shown into a parlour where only one young lady was snugly seated at her work by the fire. She rose on my entrance, offered me a seat, and assured me of the gratification her father would feel on his return, which, she added, would be in a few moments as she would dispatch a servant for him. ... [There] I sat, my gaze riveted, as it were, on the young girl before me, who, half working, half talking, essayed to make the time pleasant to me. Oh! may God bless her! It was she, my dear sons, who afterward became my beloved wife, and your mother."
 
John James Audubon and Lucy Bakewell were married in 1808, and remained together until Audubon's death in 1851. Theirs was a working partnership in many ways. Family tensions inevitably resulted from the years of separation the couple endured during Audubon's travels as he sought to set up business ventures in Kentucky and Louisiana early in their marriage (business ventures that ultimately failed and resulted first in Audubon's incarceration in debtor's prison in Kentucky in 1819, and then to his declaration of bankruptcy). Following a period in Ohio in which Audubon founded a drawing school and augmented that income by drawing and painting portraits, he then commenced traveling up and down the Mississippi River to carry out his studies for The Birds of America. These separations from his family were later compounded by Audubon's extended stays in England during the late 1820s as he worked at promoting, and then at securing the publication, of his magnum opus. During periods of their marriage, particularly during Audubon's prolonged absences, it was Lucy Audubon who supported the family financially, for years at a time, by teaching. And yet it was also Lucy Audubon who, in 1830, joined her husband in traveling back to England and ­ along with her sons ­ played the role of her husband's most active helpmeet in realizing his dream of The Birds of America. Lucy wrote to her cousin in July 1831 that "our great Book demands all our funds, time, and attention, and since I came to England we have not indulged in anything that did not appertain to the advancement and publication of the 'Birds of America'."
 
Following Audubon's death in 1851 and the premature deaths of both her sons in 1860 and 1862, respectively, Lucy Audubon became responsible once again for the debts of her extended family. Nearly destitute, she attempted to raise funds by selling Audubon's original drawings for The Birds of America, but, for several years, found no buyers. In 1863, the New York Historical Society purchased the lot for $4,000. Unable, then, to find any organization or private collector willing to purchase the original copper plates used to print the series, she sold the plates as scrap metal. Most were melted down; a few still survive.
 
Lucy Bakewell Audubon died in 1874, at the age of eighty-seven.
 
 
John James Audubon: Collector of "Curiosities"
 
Anthropologist David Jenkins has written that "[in] the early 19th century, many private, well-to-do persons collected rocks, minerals, fossils, insects, skeletons, animal skins, Indian artifacts, and so on, for their aesthetic appeal or mystical connotations. Their fragmentary and miscellaneous collections incited wonder and admiration in those privileged to see them while communicating a narrative of the prestige, esoteric knowledge, and adventurous spirit of the collector."
 
Audubon's work ­ particularly his work on The Birds of America ­ can be understood as the remarkable produce of a single-minded artist-naturalist's avocation. It can be understood further as reflecting (and having been shaped by) a particular 19th-century ethos: that of the collector to whom intellectual control, documentation, and display meant, in a sense, personal ownership.
 
Audubon wrote in 1828, in his Account of the Method of Drawing Birds,... "... had I not been impelled by the constant inviting sight of new and beautiful specimens which I longed to possess, I would probably have abandoned the task that I had set myself." His own articulation of his vision for The Birds of America refers again and again to his notion of a "collection." He aspired, he wrote, to "complete a collection not only valuable to the scientific class, but pleasing to every person."
 
He recounted that as a child, one of his greatest joys was to collect "what I called curiosities, such as birds' nests, birds' eggs, curious lichens, flowers of all sorts, and even pebbles gathered along the shore of some rivulet. The first time my father returned from sea after this my room exhibited quite a show, and on entering it he was so pleased to see my various collections that he complimented me on my taste for such things; but when he inquired what else I had done, and I, like a culprit, hung my head, he left me without saying a word."
 
So it was that Audubon was early on consumed by the cult of collecting.
 
 
John James Audubon: The Artist As Collector
 
During the initial years of his residence in America, Audubon grew familiar with the emerging natural history museums of his day. He visited Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum, the first museum in America, where he encountered works of art double-hung, salon style (as we have displayed some of Audubon's prints here, in 19th-century fashion) juxtaposed with hundreds of stuffed birds displayed against backdrops depicting their natural habitats. Indeed, Audubon may have drawn his first white-headed or bald eagle from a stuffed bird in Peale's galleries. Audubon's future brother-in-law, William Bakewell, recounted having visited Audubon at Mill Grove in 1806, only to find himself stepping into the artist's own recreation of his childhood "cabinet of curiosities," though apparently more akin now to Peale's Museum in its juxtaposition of animals and art than to Audubon's original collection of fragments:
 
"I shall never forget the delight and astonishment I experienced the first time I entered his Room which was already a little Museum. The walls were festooned with all kinds of Bird's Eggs carefully blown out and strung on thread. On the Mantel-piece and Shelves were displayed a number of Animals..., beautifully stuffed and preserved, besides a variety of paintings, principally of Birds represented as dead. The Woodpeckers suspended by their long tongues and other Birds tied up neck and heel, all the work of his own hands."
 
Jenkins notes that "[in] contrast to these fragmentary collections, emerging natural history museums in the late nineteenth century functioned to sort the world systematically into drawers, glass-fronted cases, bottles, and filing cabinets. This represented a shift from delighting in the world's strange offerings and the appeal of subjective involvement to an attempt to master and control the world's diversity through new forms of conceptualization."
 
Audubon's own collecting tendencies, as expressed first when he was a child, later as the young adult creator of his private museum space at Mill Grove, and in subsequent occupations (such as his term as a taxidermist for the Western Museum at Cincinnati College in 1819-1820), came to full fruition with his work on The Birds of America. Traveling far and wide to seek out "new and beautiful specimens which [he] longed to possess," culling and collecting those specimens, Audubon ultimately sorted "the world systematically" and mastered in his own particular manner the diversity of his adopted country's avian population. He conceptualized and disseminated the knowledge he had acquired through his collection of drawings and their reproduction in engraved form, making his mark in a way, as he had hoped, "distinguishable from all those priorly made."


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

and this video:

John James Audubon: The Birds of America is a 29 minute, 1985 National Gallery of Art program directed by Steve York. After bankruptcy in business ventures in the early 19th century, John James Audubon set out on his amazing quest to render the birds of our country. His lifelong dream was realized with the publication of The Birds of America, a magnificent collection of color engravings of his watercolors, and which established Audubon as this nation's preeminent naturalist artist. The video "Traces Audubon's career as a dedicated artist who documented the entire pantheon of American birds and who wrote extensively on nature and the American wilderness. With quotations from his journals and illustrated with his original drawings and engravings, it tells the unique story of Audubon's artistic development and of his uncompromising devotion to his dream of publishing The Birds of America. The works of art are interwoven with live-motion nature photography and footage of sites prominent in Audubon's life and work. with viewer's guide."

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

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