Cygnus buccinator, Trumpeter Swan by John James Audubon (1838). Image source: Wikimedia
A delightful way to spend a cold winter’s afternoon is to view the avian ballet that occurs daily in my backyard. Our feeders regularly supply dozens of bird species, even in the middle of suburban Long Island. Winter visitors include three varieties of woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, starlings, juncos, sparrows, crows, mourning doves, grackles, mockingbirds, chickadees and finches. Unfortunately, loss of habitat and other environmental trends threaten many once-common bird species.
Birds have provided artistic inspiration for many American artists, premier among them John James Audubon. The exhibition, Audubon’s Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species runs through March 16th in New York City and highlights birds that once flourished in American landscapes and soared in our nation’s skies but are now either declining, threatened with extinction, or sadly gone forever.
The National Audubon Society’s analysis of forty years of bird population data reveals the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.
The show is the fourth in a five-part annual Audubon series mounted by the New-York Historical Society. Each exhibition features different objects drawn from the Society’s permanent Audubon collection, the largest single repository of Audubon objects in the world. Like more and more avian species, these artworks are also endangered. Their sensitivity to light requires that each original Audubon watercolor be exhibited for only a brief period every 10 years. After closing, this year’s works will return to storage for at least ten years; unfortunately, by the time these watercolors reappear, species they have preserved on paper may have disappeared entirely.
Audubon spent 20 years painting, and overseeing the engraving and hand-coloring, of the 435 plates published in the four-volume The Birds of America, his definitive collection of drawings of American birds. By 1846, 175 complete sets were sold for $1,000 each. Of these, more than 50 have been lost to fire, flood, war, or the print dealer’s knife. A single copy sold for $8.8 million in 2000.
The Birds of America stands as one of the finest achievements of American art, marking Audubon as one of the 19th century’s greatest wildlife artists. In an era before camera and binocular, it was necessary to shoot birds in order to study and draw them. Audubon developed a method that allowed him to mount freshly killed specimens on sharpened wires set into a gridded board, that allowed him to position them in lifelike poses. He drew them first, then filled in his drawings with watercolors.
Audubon’s paintings are amazing–no one has ever drawn birds better. Captured accurately in lifelike settings they are anatomically correct while artfully composed. Take a look at his Trumpeter Swan above: the curve of the neck, the detail of the feathers, the beak opened to capture a colorful butterfly, webbed feet powerfully thrusting. It’s sobering to think that some of Audubon’s paintings have outlived their subjects, and threaten to outlive even more.
Audubon’s Birds of America (Online version of Audubon’s The Birds of America.)
Beautiful Birds: Masterpieces From the Hill Ornithology Collection, Cornell University Library (Traces the development of ornithological illustration in the 18th and 19th centuries and highlights the changing techniques used, from metal and wood engraving to chromolithography during that period.)