John James Audubon wasn’t the “backwoods genius” that his admirers claimed. Nor, according to biographer William Souder, was he the founder of the Society named for him. Nor was he “the guy who built that big highway in Germany.”
But he was, as Bell Museum of Natural History curator Don Luce stated at the opening of “Audubon and the Art of Birds” yesterday evening (October 3, 2013), a man on an “impossible quest to paint all the birds of North America life-size and in color.” With the hindsight of 175 years the significance of Audubon’s aspiration and achievement might seem trivial, but his twelve-year quest “to create images of birds that truly reveal the vitality and reality of nature” marked a paradigm shift in the way scientists and, ultimately, everyone else viewed nature.
Where paintings by self-taught Europeans such as Alexander Wilson depicted birds in static, non-proportional groupings, Audubon depicted them “doing things, like hunting and being hunted.” By drawing them full-sized in their native environments, Audubon’s “whole different way of thinking and depicting birds” initiated the “idea of ecology” that informs the 21st century’s approach to nature.
Audubon promoted his bird art quest on an equally ambitious and far-reaching scale. To insure the realism and life-size quality of his bird art, Audubon employed the largest paper size he could find (Double elephant, 30 x 40 inches) for his depictions. His printed set of twelve volumes is the largest and most expensive ($200,000 in 1840 dollars) set of books ever published. Just one of the original painted folios requires two people to display the 50 pound folio.
Wonderful as the Museum’s engraved set is (one of 100 complete sets still in existence), nature artist Julie Zickefoose says Audubon’s original paintings “are a completely different thing from the engravings.” Audubon’s observations in those paintings “were not infallible,” but his delicate attention to texture and detail were “darn good.” Viewing the originals, she says was “special and magic” and inspired her contemporary light and mood approach to nature painting.
The Museum’s exhibit of engravings runs from October 5, 2013 to June 8, 2014, but a new grouping from the Bell collection will replace the current Audubon engravings February 1st. Those wishing to learn more about Audubon, his art, his ambitions, and his contributions to natural history can register for the U of M’s college of continuing education class, “John Jay Audubon and the Art of Birds” conducted by Luce and Souder (6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m., Wednesday evenings, October 30 – November 13, 2013).