The Father of Bird Artists: John James Audubon

One of the first great American watercolorists, John James Audubon (1785-1851) was born in Haiti and educated in France, where he studied briefly with Jacques Louis David, the master neo-Classical draftsman. After failing in business, he became an artist at the urging of his wife, Lucy Blakewell Audubon. His magnum opus, a work of prodigious labor and artistic genius, The Birds of America, was published in sections between 1827 and 1838. Containing 435 hand-colored plates, The Birds of America shows more than 1,000 life-size renditions of almost 500 species of birds.

A romantic figure with shoulder-length hair and a frontiersman’s manner, Audubon cut an exotic social swath because his work required that he be a vagabond. Preparing his watercolors in the course of journeys throughout the North American continent, he observed birds in their native habitats and obtained specimens for mounting and reference. “Part of A’s genius was his ability to combine his powerful sense of design with naturalism of pose and to adapt the pose to the scientific necessity of accurately portraying the subject’s coloration and other peculiarities,” says Christopher Finch in his landmark study, American Watercolors (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986). “The naturalism of pose, it is true, was sometimes modified by the influence of the Romantic vision and sometimes by more practical considerations, such as making the image of a large bird fit life-size into the double elephant-folio format, huge though this was (26 1/2 x 39 1/2). To accommodate the exigencies of format Audubon would sometimes wire his specimens into positions that other naturalists might question but that permitted the artist to twist a neck and head into position just below an impinging margin,” concludes Finch.

Though he was a master of detail, Audubon executed his paintings quickly-sometimes in a single sitting. A stickler for accuracy, he always did careful research and depended on rigorous scientific observation. As for his watercolor technique, it was not that of a purist-largely because his subjects demanded extensive use of local color, sometimes opaque, to define their markings.

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