National Museum of Wildlife Art

Jackson Hole, Wyoming



Visions of Nature: John James Audubon

January 8, 1999 - April 4, 1999


The National Museum of Wildlife Art has opened "Visions of Nature: John James Audubon." This exhibition of works on paper by one of America's greatest naturalists highlights works from his two major publications, The Birds of America (completed 1838), and the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (completed 1852). Both projects demonstrate the development of scientific and artistic achievement in animal documentation in the nineteenth century.

Left: Virginia Opossum, 1852, hand-colored lithograph on paper

John James Audubon (France, 1785 - 1851, active United States, 1803 - 1824) began his artistic career rather dubiously. Schooled for a naval career in France, he failed officer training and fled to the United States to avoid disciplinary action. He then pursued a career as a merchant and mill owner, but lacked the willingness to dedicate himself fully to business. Instead he directed his energy and passion to the study and painting of birds. Unfortunately, this extreme interest in ornithology was at the expense of more practical matters, leading to financial bankruptcy in 1819.

Fortunately, by the mid 1820s, Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully took note of Audubon's work and encouraged him to seek publication. Due to his extreme financial situation, Audubon aggressively searched for an interested company in America, but this proved fruitless. By 1826, however, he widened his search and sailed for England, eventually joining forces with English engraver Robert Havell, Jr. Together they produced the monumental work The Birds of America. Havell's engravings were based upon Audubon's watercolors of American birds in their native habitats. This four-volume classic, completed in 1838, contains 435 life-size engravings on "double-elephant" folio-sheets measuring two feet by three feet. The engravings illustrate 1,055 bird specimens from 489 species.

Upon completion of this invaluable resource, Audubon commenced a new project depicting the mammals of America, titled The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America , rendered between 1839 - 1852. Instead of restricting himself to watercolors as he had in Birds of America, in these works he combined watercolor with pastels, pencil and oil to obtain the subtle color and texture of the animals. 155 paintings were completed for this series of which 83 were done by Audubon. After his death in 1851,the remaining 72 were completed by son John Woodhouse Audubon. The final printing, utilizing the new technique of stone lithography, was done under J.T. Bowen, a Philadelphia firm known for its large sized printed works.

Both publications set new standards in the field of ornithology and mammal illustration. Audubon devised new techniques and formats that convincingly depicted physical features,behavior and habitats of both birds and quadrupeds. He did so by studying his subjects in the wild, collecting specimens from which to capture exact shapes and color, and utilizing a variety of media to simulate textures.

Audubon died at the age of 76. Today his artistic and scientific legacy is highly revered. In fact, his love of the wilderness has been memorialized by the creation of the National Audubon Society and various other organizations founded to preserve and protect the creatures that he portrayed so vividly in his art.

"Visions of Nature" will be on display in the Pathways Gallery from January 8 - April 4, 1999. Over 30 works will be displayed, both from the museum's permanent collection and also from private lenders. The NMWA would like to thank Linda J. Cooper, Glenn Paulson, and Lynne and Jack Fritz for their generous support of this exhibit and its related programs.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 8/24/10

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