Design & Make

John James Audubon

by Catherine Wagley January 26, 2011
ReadJohn James Audubon

Damien Hirst may have made millions on sheep in formaldehyde, but he was hardly the first to exploit animals for art. In fact, he’s part of a storied lineage. Eadweard Muybridge, the nineteenth century photographer known for innocuous studies of galloping horses, once set a tiger from the Philadelphia zoo loose on a buffalo because he wanted to record killing in motion. But it is John James Audubon — pioneering conservationist and naturalist, whose tender portraits of birds canonized him the eyes of every binoculared weekend ornithologist — who has the most blood on his hands.

The early American artist-naturalist, after whom the genteel National Audubon Society is named, has recently been in the public spotlight. An original manuscript of his masterpiece, The Birds of Americarecently sold for $11.5 million, setting a record for the world’s most expensive printed book. It’s full of the drawings that made Audubon famous, all of which appear to depict animals in nature as if by careful observation. But, while Audubon was certainly an avid observer, he painted from lifeless bodies mounted on his studio wall. Rendering is much easier when your subject can’t move.

Oil painting by John James Audubon of peregrine falcons.

A pair of peregrine falcons munching on duck, by John James Audubon.

Born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French captain and a chambermaid, Audubon grew up primarily in Nantes, France. He had no formal art training, just like he had no formal training in science, though as a teenager he did briefly pursue a naval career. After failing the entrance exam for the School of Hydrography, he turned to the interest he’d had since childhood — drawing from nature. He would spend most of life pursuing this passion, educating himself on an as-needed basis.

Portrait of John James Audubon in 1826 by John Syme. (Image courtesy of Ocean's Bridge)

The young John James posing for a portrait but longing for the hunt. Painting by John Symes, 1826. (Image courtesy of Ocean’s Bridge)

He left for the United States in 1802 to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army by tending land his father had purchased in Pennsylvania. Eager to explore the anatomy of the specimens in his new home, he learned to gut and stuff animals. At first he strung his subjects up by their wings or feet, but later he began inserting a flexible wire frame into freshly killed animals before stuffing them. This way, he could arrange the corpses in more “lifelike” poses. However, the new technique lent itself to over-the-top theatricality — if he could pose animals at will, he could also take some liberties.

Unlike other early American hunter-naturalists who were more interested in the dignity of the hunt than pastoral visions, Audubon was more of an aesthete. He may have been unfazed by killing, but he cared about beauty. As scholar Roswell Eldridge put it, “a bird [for Audubon] was like a rose. You admired the color, you admired the fragrance, and you picked it without much emotional reaction.”

One of John J. Audubon's original bird specimens.

A yellow-throated vireo plucked from life by Audubon himself. (Image courtesy of The Zoology Museum)

There’s an unnerving amount of rose-picking recorded in Audubon’s journals: woodpeckers, blue jays, grosbeaks, marsh hawks, night hawks, the “extremely wary” red-tailed hawk who seemed to “understand perfectly” the use of a gun. A golden eagle at first refused to die, and its eyes “at one time blazed as if illuminated with fire, and then glazed as if in death.” And it wasn’t only birds that got “picked.” Audubon liked skins too, and skulls. There were buffalo, tortoises, antelope, deer, squirrel, bullfrogs. Certainly, his hunting sometimes had a pragmatic purpose – he had to feed and clothe his family­. But pragmatics seemed secondary to his obsession with collecting and rendering specimens, particularly since he sometimes boasted about killing a hundred birds in a day.

Unintentionally one of the first mavens of mixed-media, Audubon would combine watercolor with pastel, and work with oil, gouache and various engraving techniques. In his drawings, he tended to anthropomorphize his subjects, giving them human-like traits to such an extent that fellow naturalists questioned his legitimacy. A hawk with a writhing rabbit in its beak, or a haughty cross fox lording over a bloody bird, seemed to appeal more to pathos than science. But even if contemporaries and successors questioned his accuracy, no one questioned his inexhaustible productivity. He’d travel with numerous hunting parties throughout his life, and write prolific journal entries about what he saw. In his writings, he would often allude to how specimens of interest tasted.

Archival photo of John J. Audubon c. 1845 from the Smithsonian

The man reformed: John James Audubon, circa 1845. (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)

Much writing about Audubon, including his writing about himself, make him seems heroic in the way Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett were — not because of his pristine character, but because of the mythic amount of activity they fit into their life. Certainly, he exaggerated, but his Herculean drive was real, and that one man could kill a hundred birds in a day is as awing as the fact that one would want to.

Free-ranging and insatiable as a young man, the aging Audubon seemed to discover more reasons for anger and to feel more for the animals he’d spent his life shooting, stuffing and mounting. In 1843, at nearly sixty years old, Audubon embarked on a Mississippi River expedition with other hunters and naturalists, and his field notes reveal a disgust and regret altogether uncharacteristic of his younger self. The gusto and thoughtlessness of his companions grated on him. He describes two men, “who may be called hunters,” killing four buffalo, letting one drown, and only salvaging minimal meat and the tongue of one bull before returning to their party. Wrote an angered Audubon, “and thus it is that thousands multiplied by thousands of buffalo are senselessly murdered every year.” On another instance, he lamented, “What a terrible destruction of life, as it were for . . . next to nothing that they were killed,” and began to show a more specific sympathy than ever before: “these poor animals which two hours before were tranquilly feeding are now dead; short work this.”

Oil painting of two cats fighting by John James Audubon, 1826. (Image courtesy of 2Art Gallery)

Two cats fighting (and a murdered squirrel). John James Audubon, 1826. (Image courtesy of 2Art Gallery)

Audubon never explicitly denounced hunting, but the Mississippi trip was his last major expedition. In a review of recent Audubon biographies, Jennifer J. Baker talked about biographers’ inability to “reconcile the bloodshed to the conservationism, just as others cannot reconcile, say, slaveholding to the Declaration of Independence.” But Baker suggests we “can at least imagine how Audubon…supplied the inspiration and tools for future change.” This may be the case; he was one of the first to recognize the need for conservation at all. Still, the fact remains: animals suffered for Audubon’s work and, in celebrating nature, he also destroyed it. Does that sort of recklessness always have to be part of progress?

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