Learning from Exhibitions: Spectacular Achievements Audubon's Animals of North America

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Learning from Exhibitions: Spectacular Achievements Audubon's Animals of North America


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


When one thinks of wildlife art, the name of one artist immediately comes to mind: John James Audubon (1785-1851). For half a century he was America's dominant wildlife artist, and his reputation for scientific accuracy and superb technique are still held in the highest esteem today.

Regardless of the medium--oil, watercolor or print--Audubon created a virtual encyclopedia of birds and animals with such precision and originality that all other wildlife artists, past and present, are judged by his consistently high standards.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Audubon was born in Haiti (then called Saint Domingue) the son of a French father and a French-Creole mother. Following the death of his mother, the young Audubon was taken to France where he was educated and eventually took art classes, and even studied drawing with the famous French artist Jacques-Louis David.

In order to avoid the Napoleonic Wars, his father sent him to eastern Pennsylvania where Audubon learned a Quaker form of English, Americanized his name from Jean-Jacques to John James, married his neighbor Lucy Bakewell, oversaw a farm and ran a general store. Eventually his business went bankrupt, which was not altogether bad as it left him more time to pursue his favorite pastime of hunting, collecting specimens and drawing.

By 1821 Audubon had moved to a plantation near New Orleans where he continued his interest in natural history and art by roaming and painting in the woods. He also taught drawing and sold portraits on demand to support his family. In the early 1820s he traveled extensively to document birds with the intention of publishing a portfolio.

Ironically, he was unsuccessful in finding an American publisher so he traveled to England in 1826, where he raised enough money through subscriptions to publish his Birds of America, an oversized portfolio of 435 hand-colored, life-size aquatint prints. The volume was printed in 87 parts between 1826 and 1838. It is generally regarded as the greatest picture book ever published. Audubon also published modified versions of his bird illustrations in several editions that were quickly acquired by anxious collectors.

Audubon had arrived in England as a virtual unknown, but within a few short years had achieved his dream of a major publication, recognition, and financial and social success. His work was greatly admired and he was proclaimed an American genius. By 1839 he returned to the United States and purchased an estate in New York at Washington Heights on the Hudson.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Back in America, Audubon immersed himself in another major undertaking, similar in many ways to his Birds of America project. He began to collect material for an equally impressive study of North American animals. The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America proved more difficult than he had anticipated, as many native animals were nocturnal and their habits were hard to learn. …

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