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(Mark Laita)

How James Audubon Captured the Romance of the New World

An amateur naturalist’s unparalleled artworks still inspire conservationists and collectors alike

As a young man John James Audubon was obsessed with birds, and he had a vision for a completely different kind of book. He would paint birds as he saw them in the wild “alive and moving,” and paint every species actual size. His friends were skeptical, but Audubon, a man of “indomitable energy and perseverance,” the naturalist John Burroughs said, succeeded magnificently.

He traveled the U.S. frontier on foot and on horseback, from Ohio to Louisiana, and later even farther west, seeking birds of every species known to science. He wrote of his time in Kentucky, around 1810, “I shot, I drew, I looked on nature only; my days were happy beyond human conception, and beyond this I really cared not.”

With almost no bird books for reference, he had to learn the birds on his own. Without binoculars or camera, he had to use the birds themselves as reference material, and after many trials he developed a method for posing a dead bird so he could paint its picture.

Audubon, born in Haiti in 1785 and raised in France until he came to the United States in 1803, was, by all accounts, an entertaining storyteller. His paintings are embellished for dramatic effect, and the energy and excitement conveyed in his work were like nothing the world had seen before. The frenetic scene of a red-shouldered hawk flailing as it crashes into a covey of panicking quail, and another of mockingbirds attacking a rattlesnake at their nest, are two of his most dramatic paintings, but even the quieter pieces resonate with the tension of things about to happen.

The paintings were just the first step in a long production process that took him across the Atlantic multiple times. Contrary to the happiness that he felt in the woods of Kentucky, the crowds, soot and cold of London frustrated and depressed him. But England was the only place where he could find a printer capable of undertaking the project and enough wealthy subscribers to fund it.

In London he delivered the paintings to an engraver, Robert Havell. Starting with a smooth copper plate, Havell copied, by hand, the shapes and shading of the artwork, using a process known as aquatint to create varying textures that would hold ink on the surface of the copper. Adding to the challenge, this engraving had to be a mirror image so that when a sheet of paper was pressed onto the inked plate the printed image would look like the original painting.

Once the engraving was done, the copper plate could produce many prints of black ink on white paper. Those, of course, needed to be hand-colored by teams of colorists using watercolor paint. The process was laborious but this art-reproduction technology allowed hundreds of people in the early 1800s to own Audubon’s paintings. The combined talents of Audubon and Havell were required to make that possible, and Birds of America, first published in series form between 1827 and 1838, has been hailed as one of the greatest printed books ever.

As Jonathan Rosen points out in The Life of the Skies, these paintings promoted a romantic vision of the wilderness of the New World, to be viewed by people who would never see these birds in real life. Perhaps that is one reason Audubon found more success in England than in the young United States, and why his work still holds its appeal today, as the wilderness he knew and loved recedes farther into the past.

The son of a Yale ornithologist, David Sibley began birding as a boy and followed his father into the field. He both wrote and illustrated The Sibley Guide to Birds, considered the most comprehensive North American field guide.


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