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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)
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
(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
(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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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."
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