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Featuring Birds
December 13, 2005

Cardinal Grosbeak

John James Audubon, Cardinal Grosbeak, 1811, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U. S. National Museum, 1953.3.1

Here's an excerpt from Paul Richard's Washington Post article about Audubon's Birds of America, selections from which are on view at the National Gallery of Art's Audubon's Dream Realized exhibition:

Though the artist is remembered as notably American, he wasn't wholly ours. J.J. Audubon was born Jean Rabine in Haiti in 1785. Until he was 18 the painter lived in France, and it was surely in that rich, cultivated country—not while tramping across our trackless woods, or wading through our swamps—that he first absorbed the stylish scrolls and luxurious arabesques and ripe rococo curls that activate his art.

Read the whole thing. Richard's comments run along the lines of the Eye Level discussion "Art in America." Those "arabasques and ripe rococo curls" in addition to the tobacco-stained hue of Audubon's palette reflect Old World design elements seen through a New World lens. As was often the case for early American artists, Aubudon's works were intended for his European audience (that is, buyers).

In Europe, his oversized naturalist prints appealed to a colonial sensibility. The political dimension to Audubon's work makes him a figure worth revisiting for contemporary artists. Take, for example, the politically charged works of Walton Ford. Ford adopts not only Audubon's representational style but also adapts biographical and historical nuggets from his world. The irony is not lost on Ford, for example, that Audobon's naturalism, which lavished so much praise on America's flora and fauna, came at the cost of a lifetime spent hunting the exotic subjects for his watercolors. That European curio cabinets were the repositories for his prints while the artist himself lived on the brink of financial ruin is important to Ford's watercolors and prints. And Ford's "Nila"  series (1999–2000) connects Audubon's colonialism to present-day concerns about class and national boundaries [Nila (Swadeshi-phobia) in particular].

Are those national boundaries still very important to art? Far, far earlier than Audubon's time, artists were borrowing willy-nilly from one another's cultures. Is an artist's palette global? If so, in what sense are Audubon's birds "patriotic"?

Posted by Kriston on December 13, 2005 in American Art Here


The "colonial" sensibility you identify is of course an essential ingredient in American culture as well. One of the central American myths, indeed, is the taming of America. The Wild West of the movies would hardly be so wild without the contrasting encroachment of the civilizing East. So there's no contradiction here—Audubon gives the viewer sovereignty over the vast new wilderness, a project that appeals to Europeans and Americans alike.

Though proudly American, I was only brought to an appreciation of Audubon by way of Anglophilia—through Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head. One couple in the book totes a totemic set (framed individually) from one apartment to another...the vigorous deadness of the images, on which everyone remarks, suits the zombie quality of the characters quite as aptly as the title.

This is a lovely piece that seems to meld itself between the old world and the new. I think the "flat," almost two-dimensional styling is a nice change from some other bird pieces.

I just saw a Walton Ford piece in one of the more recent issues of the New Yorker. The dark humor of swadeshi-phobia was also present in this piece. It had a feral pig front and center, but far in the background the entire landscape was on fire. Great works.

One of Audubon's birds most certainly is patriotic: his Washington Sea Eagle, one of his few oil paintings. Audubon believed he had found a new species, and wrote in 1829 of his choice to name the bird in honor of America's first president: "To those who may be curious to know my reasons, I can only say, that, as the new world gave me birth and liberty, the great man who insured its independence is next to my heart...If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her Great Eagle."

I for one find the fact that someone, anyone, would claim that Audubon is a figure of Colonial America, to be outrageous. Alexander Wilson is known as "the father of American ornithology." He earned this title both because of his American Ornithology--the first natural history just on American birds, which was first issued from 1808 to 1814 and so predated Audubon by about two decades--and because he was the first American citizen to become a full-time scientist in this field.

Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, drew most of the birds for his ornithology himself; the engravings were mostly by Alexander Lawson and John G. Warnicke. Wilson worked with a small budget and so had to crowd as many specimens as he could onto one plate for the series. This led to the characteristic appearance of many of his prints, with several birds, juxtaposed in different combinations, filling the page right up to the plate mark. Although he fell far short of his goal of depicting every species of bird in North America, Wilson’s is a highly respected work in the history of science and he was the leading competitor and chief precursor of Audubon. It is a shame when we as Americans do not even know the history of our own country's great people.


Do you find it outrageous that I said Audubon was a figure of colonial America, or the figure of colonial America? I wouldn't argue the latter, in particular with specific reference to naturalism and ornithology—I both know that Audubon is predated by other figures (as you point out) and that I don't know enough about naturalism or ornithology to make any authoritative statement.

But I'll stand by my claim that his work is colonial in nature. And though his work may not be the first or greatest of its kind, his is the work that has most influenced later generations of artists.

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