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Friday, February 27, 2009

John James Audubon

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John James Audubon
April 26, 1785-January 27, 1851


Birds. How exasperating they are! Even when I lift my camera to shoot them through the window, they scatter. Light, vulnerable and deft, they hide in the branches until the frightening woman with the black box vanishes. They must think my camera shoots bullets instead of photographs.

I told you about my single attempt to photograph birds in the meadow in winter. None appeared though I sat for an hour and a half and froze my tush, never to embark out again this season.

Not so Mr. Audubon. From the time he was a baby he felt an intimacy with birds bordering on frenzy. He spent most of his life chronicling them, often in harrowing conditions. (See field notes from his journals, below.)

The portrait, above (now where Sasha and Malia can see it daily on the west wall of the Red Room in the White House), of Audubon by John Syme shows him as he must have looked in the years 1820-1824 when he explored Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in the start of his attempt to paint all the birds of North America. One of the treasured books I inherited from my parents is Audubon's Birds of America, the greatest picture book of all time. It has 435 watercolor plates of birds painted by John, well my edition has photographs of the plates. In all, the field work and paintings took 14 years to complete for the book. Yes, the gun there means he shot birds in order to draw them. At the time of the painting of this portrait in Edinburgh by the Scottish Syme, Audubon was in the British Isles looking for a publisher for the book.



mourning doves


He intended to include paintings of eggs in his book, but they didn't make it into the final copy. (In my 1966 edition, Marshall B. Davidson included Audubon's eggs in his Introduction.) Eggs are more docile subjects, no need to shoot them. But at first glance at his drawings at the right I thought the pen scratches under them were feet!

The book has 435 hand-colored prints of over 700 North American bird species. He tried unsuccessfully to get it published in the U.S. Eventually in England it cost more than $100,000 at the time to print (over $2 million in today's money). Copper plates had to be carved, and the original edition was hand tinted and printed with the aquatint process.



cardinals


It seemed to us as if we were approaching the end of the world. The country was perfectly flat, and, so far as we could survey it, presented the same wild and scraggy aspect. . . We now and then passed through muddy pools, which reached the saddle-girths of our horses.

- from Audubon and His Journals, chapter "Spring Garden"


scrub (or Florida jay), Stellar's jay, yellow-billed magpie, Clark's nutcracker


In the morning when I arose, the country was still covered in thick fogs, so that although I could hear the plain notes of birds on shore, not an object could I see beyond the bowsprit, and the air was as close and sultry as the previous evening.

- from the chapter St. John's River, Audubon and His Journals



purple finches

The National Audubon Society was of course named after John James Audubon.

65 comments:

Butler and Bagman said...

Hooray for Audubon...and I always thought it was just a fast road in Germany. I like your blog because I learn new things of interest that I didn't know I was interested in. I also noticed that you can hyperlink words in a blog! Boy that could take even more time!!!

Nautankey said...

The normal exclamation..Wow! Wish I cud write something which is atleast half as informative as ur posts :-). I never knew I loved birds until I realized the birds i grew up as a kid with are no more to be seen.The sparrows are gone, the crows are slowly vanishing.. Maan wat will we show to our kids. Probably a copy of audobon's book :-)

Helena said...

Beautiful paintings. But unfortunate that he had to shoot the birds in order to paint them.

shicat said...

Hi Ruth, SOME BOOK.Just beautiful. Did you notice that Floozie, Honey and Kahn are looking on ? This weekend my husband,son and I ventured to the Lake Erie Metro park. Andy, my son,called it a photo expedition. We tried to find interesting things to take pictures of. Actually, there were plenty of interesting possibilities,Lake Erie,fields of grass etc. it's just that we are not that good with the camera yet.... Anywho there wasn't a bird in sight. We looked and looked the museum had plenty of stuffed birds in fact the park is in the migratory flight path for Hawks. Hey thats it, they have all flown south. One of the things I enjoy the most about spring is hearing the birds sing in the morning. Fortunatly , I have window boxes and bushes near my windows and am still able to hear some of their songs ,but spring is best. Have to go, Andy is moving out. The last one to leave the nest.. peep sigh,peep peep.

Susan said...

Ruthie, lovely post! No wonder Audubon was able to capture such detail in his paintings. Dead birds hold still a lot better than ones who are flitting about. I'm not sure how he kept them intact enough after shooting them, but it must have worked.

I've never seen a picture of that portrait. It's very nice. I hope Sasha and Malia enjoy watching birds as we do.

♥ Kathy said...

Aww I didn't know he shot them :( beautiful pictures though :)

Barry said...

What a leap of faith for the publishers.

What a treasure for us to inherit.

What a wonderful and informative post.

Thank you.

dutchbaby said...

I have countless photos of spots where birds used to be only milliseconds earlier. How dare they fly away? Don't they know I'm trying to immortalize them?

Audubon is one of my favorite artists. His wife donated all his original drawings to the New York Historical Society where they display a couple of them at a time.

Even though Audubon shot his subjects, a common practice in his day, he still captured their habits and behaviors by depicting them in very lively poses. Only a person who has studied them for many hours can achieve this.

You are very blessed to own his book.

rauf said...

it requires a great deal of patience Ruth, which comes automatically when you are obsessed with a subject. We then enjoy the fruits of such an obsession.
We had Dr. Salim Ali here in India who dedicated his life studying birds and their behaviour.

Kat said...

I have always been amazed by Audubon's drawings of the birds. Birds are so uplifting, and yes, they are all in my backyard and have been all winter. I have hundreds (or so it seems) of yellow finches, Titmouses, some doves, and a beautiful pair of Red Bellied Woodpeckers. I try to photo them, but alas, you know what happens. Thanks for the info, very informative. Kat

Loring Wirbel said...

I've seen many portraits of Audubon, but none where he looked so much like Hippy Jonny. I can just see him out birding with canvas and oils.
He did a lovely job with the Stellar's Jay - we have almost as many Stellar's around here as woodpeckers, but they're not as annoying.

Dakota Bear said...

Tea!

Ruth thank you for the refreshing info about Audubon and the wonderful pictures. Likewise I try to capture pictures of birds through the window.

laura said...

Audubon's artwork is beautiful--I like how he painted the branches and leaves and flowers as much as the birds. It's too bad naturalist of that era killed so many birds in order to study them!

Purest Green said...

Your blog is always beautiful - a treat at the end of a long week.

If you can find a copy, I highly recommend J.A. Baker's The Hill of Summer, published in the late 60s. The most beautiful bit of nature writing I have ever experienced. His first book, The Falcon, is still in print, I believe.

ds said...

Oh, lucky you to have that book--so beautiful, and so sad. There's a line in a letter of vanGogh's to his brother Theo, where Vincent explains his efforts to paint a Death's Head moth. It is something like this:"...I had to kill it;'tis a pity, the creature was so beautiful." I imagine Audubon felt the same way. Wonderful post. Thank you.

Wandering Alice said...

Beautiful post! I've loved Audobon's egg paintings ever since I was a little girl and my grandmother would let me leaf through a book of his prints. I always stopped and marvelled at the beauty and variety in something so simple as an egg. And today I tried to sneak up on a flock of cedar waxwings, but they were far too clever and observant for me and my camera!

Have you ever read any of the books by Scott Wiedensaul(sp)? He writes very eloquently about birding today...
-A

Anet said...

What a treasure your book is! I love Audubon. I have a lovely big print in an antique frame over my mantel. Orchard Orioles is the title.
I had no idea he shot the birds, gee... kind of sad.

CottageGirl said...

Just gorgeous! Even over 150 years later and those beautiful pictures are still breathtaking!

Thanks for keeping us so well-rounded, Ruth!

Hope your weekend is great!

renaye said...

what an amazing book!! and what dedication of audubon!

*jean* bluebirds living in the meadow said...

we were fortunate enough to have this marvelous book growing up as well...an amazing story i always thought would make a great film...thank you, this was a wonderful post...

Gwen Buchanan said...

Coffee please!!

What an undertaking... 14 years to complete.. yet they all look to have that initial fresh enthusiasm..

What a master he was.. I'm glad he lived.

Ruth said...

Just wait, B & B, you'll keep learning and adding, and then Blogger will do the same. It never ends.

Ruth said...

Hi, Nautankey! Oh, that makes me sad what you wrote.

Ruth said...

Helena, it had never occurred to me before reading up for this post that killing them would be necessary. Of course many animals die for many purposes - science, food, culling. I suppose Audubon's field work was no less worthy than other intentions.

Ruth said...

Cathy, that must have been a strange silence at the park with no birds. At my office on the second floor ("first" floor elsewhere in the world) the birds make nests outside my window, and I hear them chattering all day.

I remember when Peter moved out. I wrote a poem about it. Something about wanting to go with him. Of course I couldn't.

Ruth said...

I know, Susie Q, there are many other portraits of him that show how different he looked as he aged. The wiki site I embedded for the Red Room says there are many portraits in it. It would be fun to walk through the White House and just observe and explore all the portraits. And imagine how many are probably in storage!

Ruth said...

Hi, ♥ Kathy. Apparently he wished he didn't have to.

Ruth said...

Barry, he must have been quite a hit with the Brits. I think they were already intrigued by the wilds of America, and here came this artist giving visuals to their imagination. Must have been exciting for them!

Ruth said...

Hahaha, Dutchbaby, I like how you said that. It's so hard to get them in the frame!

You are right, such a good point, that he had to have watched them closely, tirelessly, to capture their movements so well. One aspect I really like in his paintings is how he includes the foods and prey they eat, like hawks with rabbits in their talons.

Ruth said...

rauf, I have to remind myself of what you wrote, that a passion drives you to do what others might shun as too much work. It would be cool if everyone in the world had a passion for something only they could do, and got to do it, and we all fulfilled a role with joy.

Thank you for introducing me to Dr. Salim Ali, the Birdman of India. How sad that his wife who accompanied him died so young and sudden.

Ruth said...

Kat, welcome. Apparently you and I need a great deal more patience, or some other trick we haven't discovered yet.

Ruth said...

Loring, you're forever introducing me to something new, especially music. I had never heard of Hippy Johnny.

I've never seen a stellar jay, they look gorgeous.

Ruth said...

Drink up, Dakota Bear. It's hard to get good photos through our windows with screens on. I think I'm going to have to park myself in one spot for a few hours outdoors once the weather improves.

Ruth said...

Laura, the branches, leaves, fruits are splendid, aren't they? He did so well painting their habits and habitat.

Ruth said...

That's so nice, Purest Green, thank you very much. Made me happy!

I will look into Baker's book, thank you. Apparently he also wrote The Hill of Spring. There's nothing at Amazon, but I'll check my university library.

Ruth said...

DS, I've only read a very small amount about Audubon for this post, and I didn't run across anything about how he felt killing them. I imagine there might be something in his journals, which can be read online.

Ruth said...

Oh! Wandering Alice, that's cool about you and his egg paintings. There is remarkable beauty in them. I find robin's eggs to be the most gorgeous color, maybe my favorite color, and nestled in a brown nest they just send me!

No I am not familiar with Weidensaul, but thank you now I know. I found his site name, and I like the title of his book: Living on the Wind. That is one reason I would love to be a bird, to ride on the wind.

Ruth said...

Anet, how cool. Orioles are beautiful. Once in a while we see a Baltimore Oriole here. For this post I only showed a few of the birds we have here at the farm. But there are so many great paintings of water birds, birds of prey, etc.

Ruth said...

Hi, Cottage Girl, that's nice, and you're welcome, but really it's just me being all over the place. I envy people who have more centered blogs. :)

Ruth said...

Yes, Renaye. I think it's true what rauf said, that when you have a passion, the difficulties aren't so bad.

Ruth said...

Oh, Jean, that is such a good point and idea. I wonder why no one has taken it on? I would love to see it.

Ruth said...

Dear Gwen, drink up and have another.

It's one thing to paint still lifes set up in a studio, or portraits of people you can tell to sit still. But to go to the lengths he did, and have the artistic talent, he was a gift to the world.

rauf said...

Ruth, what Nautanki says is a tragedy. i am not sure of the reason for sparrows disappearing. It is generally believed that mobile phone waves are causing a great deal of disturbance to them. And i have a personal reason.

I'll mail you a picture of my old tiled house Ruth. Old houses had wooden beams in the ceiling. Continuously for 48 years in my old house sparrows used to nest across the wooden beams and i took care of them. then my house was demolished.
All the old houses which had tiled roofs (ideal for Chennai summers) have disappeared. New buildings have flat ceilings. no room for sparrows to nest. That is a big tragedy.

Loring Wirbel said...

Did you google Hippy Jonny? I actually had two friends that used the Internet handle "HippyJonny" as a joke.

The best YouTube is:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_exvKnrK6g

(The related video of "Pablo Picasso" is hilarious as well.)

A new-found obsession with The Modern Lovers is at this blog:

http://lettherebelight.tumblr.com/post/68887729/hippy-jonny

In 1976-77, I went through three copies of the "black heart" album of Modern Lovers - it tended to get played endlessly in dorm rooms.
"So drop out of high school! All right."

Oliag said...

Hi Ruth - I did know that about Audubon killing the birds to paint them accurately but the paintings are so beautiful it never did bother me!...I wish my parents were nice enough to leave me such a wonderful book!

I stumbled upon this marvelous site today that made me quite jealous too...
http://www.papernstitch.com/shop/rocky-top-studio...I think you will love it...

Pouty Lips said...

This post is absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed it from beginning to end and wanted it to keep going.

Ruth said...

rauf, so you are not the only one who lost something in the demolishing of your old house. I don't understand why builders would turn from tiled roofs! They must be fairly inexpensive to make, I think, from terracotta, the earth's clay. That in itself is sad, for the energy efficiency, and for the aesthetics. But for the sparrows to lose their nesting places is heart breaking.

Oh thank you for the image of you as a boy caring for the sparrows in your rafters.

Ruth said...

Loring, I did google it and only got as far as finding a song by the title Hippy Johnny.

I still don't understand who Hippy Johnny is! Even though his name is in the song.

Ruth said...

Oliag - those birds at the rocky top studio!! Must be an amazing photographer. I am jealous too.

Ruth said...

Pouty Lips, that's a terrific compliment, thank you so much.

MAXIMUS said...

It must be a very interesting book, but... did he shoot them after all?

California Girl said...

Even on the internet, the colors pop. I'd love to see the originals. My father loved Audubon and was quite the bird watcher. He knew his stuff.

Thanks for a lovely post with interesting info.

Loring Wirbel said...

Hippy Jonny is the sum total of all Cheech & Chong characters that ever dropped a bong. James Audubon is Hippy Jonny. We are all Hippy Jonny.

Ruth said...

Hi there, California Girl. Isn't it such a treat to be with someone like your father (and my FIL and my husband) who is familiar with birds? I love to have them around because I can always count on them to know what bird that is. But no matter how often they tell me the same bird, I still forget. Well maybe now that we're here at the farm and I see them more regularly I'm starting to remember. I can never remember the name of (wait while I ask Don) . . . nuthatches.

Ruth said...

Yaaaaay, Loring! Now I sorta know who Hippy Jonny is! It's me!

Ruth said...

MAXIMUS, apparently he did shoot them. It's strange to adjust to that, I'm not sure how I feel about it. But I am very grateful for these illustrations that will last another few centuries.

Sandy said...

Great post! I love these paintings. I just found several wonderful bird books in thrift stores and had started posting some of the images on my bird blog.

You had me at the word "bird".

love it.

Ruth said...

Aunty Sandy, your book illustrations, and of course your own, are so lovely too. Such delicate creatures, must be fun to draw and paint them.

Ginnie said...

Can you imagine dedicating that amount of time in your life to such a project, Ruth?!

Arcadia said...

Thank you so much for your comment.While I was reading this article I realized that for some people it may take a life time patience to paint a part of the nature's beauties.
Have a great and joyful day.

Ruth said...

Boots, yes I can, if it were my "job."

Ruth said...

Arcadia, and maybe most of the hours are spent just sitting and observing.

Kerri said...

A wonderful post Ruth! What a talent he was!!

Ruth said...

Kerri, you are documenting nature close up too.

Vagabonde said...

How fortunate to have such a beautiful book. Looking at Audubon’s paintings has always been such a source of joy for me. Thank you for telling me about this post – I enjoyed it very much.