From an early age, John James Audubon had a passion to study birds. He watched, collected, and drew them. But he was disappointed because his drawings did not capture the sense of life and action he knew in nature. Each year on his birthday, he burned his failed efforts and then started anew. His father encouraged his interest in birds but told young Audubon it was not possible to capture the living essence of nature in a drawing. Undeterred, Audubon continued his quest.
Like almost all naturalists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Audubon killed birds. As well as for food and for sport, he shot birds because he loved them and wanted to study them in detail. His great challenge as an artist was to create the illusion of life from the dead specimens in front of him.
Break With Tradition
Before Audubon began his artistic pursuit of the living bird, images of birds in art were all very similar: They showed birds in stiff profile view. Naturalists and artists had few tools to help their studies. Binoculars and photography had not been invented. The only way to see the detail of a bird was to shoot it. Artists used preserved skins and taxidermy mounts as models for drawing. Many were unfamiliar with birds in their natural habitat. They failed to capture the bird's behavior or environment. At best, their illustrations served as "bird maps" that showed the general shapes and color patterns needed for species description.
One of the first naturalists to break with this tradition was Mark Catesby, an Englishman who explored the southern colonies in the early 1700s. He collected and preserved specimens of plants, birds, and other animals. Before sending the specimens to wealthy collectors in England, he made drawings and kept notes on species habits. After returning to England, Catesby spent the last 20 years of his life publishing his drawings and written observations. His bird images often have a whimsical charm, but they are not particularly accurate depictions of form and plumage. Though crude by later standards, Catesby's drawings show a spark of life gained from observing birds firsthand. In only one image did he draw the bird as he actually saw it, a dead robin lying on its back with its feet in the air. It is one of his most accurately rendered works.
In his quest, he tried many tactics. He strung up freshly killed birds with thread and drew them. The few surviving examples of these drawings show the results were not successful. He then decided to make drawings in the field as he watched birds. Because birds of course move, he could capture only sketchy outlines. But this practice trained him to observe and remember characteristic postures and manners of each species.
His bird drawings slowly became more lifelike. Finally, he hit upon a method. Remembering the actions of the bird, he would pin and wire a newly shot bird to a board in a natural pose. The board was marked off in a grid. Using the same grid marks on his paper, he could outline the bird in correct proportion.
With this technical challenge solved, Audubon was freed to paint birds the way he loved them, alive and moving in nature. He created dramatic compositions in which life-size birds fly, dive, and swim in vivid animation among flowers, trees, and landscapes. He gave the viewer a window into the lives of his beloved birds. Birds were no longer mere specimens to be cataloged. They were beings leading interesting and intrinsically valuable lives. This was a revolutionary breakthrough, which ultimately resulted in Birds of America, his collection of 435 prints.
Living closer to nature than most people did, Audubon understood that birds do not have an idyllic existence. Most birds need to kill to survive. And they need to remain vigilant against being eaten by other creatures. Audubon's birds eat, feed each other, and sometimes feed upon each other. Few nature artists, then or now, show these life and death struggles. But Audubon reveled in the drama of predation, depicting it in all its gory detail.
His exquisitely rendered swallow-tailed kite holds a snake writhing in the agony of death.
Looking skyward, a majestic golden eagle grasps a hare in its talons. Blood drips from the hare's mouth; a talon punctures its eye.
The osprey, maybe Audubon's most accurately drawn bird, flies across the page while the fish in its talons gasps its last breath.
Audubon was particularly fond of juxtaposing sharp beak and dewy eyeballs. In his image of two black vultures, one vulture is just about to use its hooked beak to pluck the eye of a dead deer. Though potentially disturbing, the violence lends a psychological power to his work and possibly makes the viewer think more deeply about the nature of life.
In Audubon's day, most European-Americans saw nature as inexhaustible, something to use, exploit, and tame. No one thought much about preserving wildlife, because almost everyone assumed there would always be more to be found farther west. But when Audubon returned to the Ohio River valley after more than a decade away, he was struck by how rapidly the landscape was changing. The forests and prairies where he once studied birds in seclusion had become farms, towns, and mills. The great flocks of waterfowl and other birds that he once hunted with Indians were gone or greatly diminished. On his last expedition up the Missouri River in 1843 in search of new animals to depict, Audubon mostly stayed in camp and painted while other members of his party went out to hunt bison, elk, and other big game. His later writing reflects his concern for conservation.
Audubon died in 1851. By the late 1800s, people were beginning to see the loss of wildlife and wilderness as a problem. Audubon's images helped them see birds and other animals as more than just game, vermin, or curiosities. People organized clubs and campaigned to stop the slaughter of birds. In 1896 the first Audubon society formed in Massachusetts to stop the killing of birds for plumes to decorate women's hats. By 1898 other states, including Minnesota, had followed suit, establishing conservation societies named after Audubon, the hunter and wildlife artist.
Audubon's dramatic, and sometimes violent, images continue to inspire people to admire, care for, and protect nature.