Birds of America
John James Audubon as Artist
John James Audubon was a daring and colorful character renowned for his adventurous
nature, his artistic genius, and his obsessive interest in birds. Learn about his life by reading
"John James Audubon
-The American Woodsman: Our Namesake and Inspiration". He explored the natural history of much of
the central and eastern United States, painted almost 500 species of the 700 or so regularly occurring
North American species, worked tirelessly to promote his project, and set a new standard for artistry
and printing. Perhaps above all else, Audubon was a lover and observer of birds and nature.
Audubon drew birds from life whenever possible rather than from specimens alone. He did, indeed, shoot specimens that he wired and propped into life-like positions as models for his paintings. Of equal or greater importance, he spent much of his life traveling the continent observing the birds (and animals) in remarkable depth and detail. He studied the creatures in all of their plumages. He attempted to tease out mysteries of aberrant plumages and apparent hybrids. He took note of the birds' food and habitat preferences meticulously. And, he watched them move, interact, and behave. He strove for action and reality; this was a new approach to the painting of birds.
Audubon has been accused of presenting his subjects in too theatric a manner. The occasionally awkward postures he often used, however, emphasize outstanding features or fieldmarks. The exaggerated curves and stretches in some of his paintings also reflect his artistic eye; they work in the context of the painting. Finally, these paintings reflect Audubon's love and fascination with the beauty and dynamics of our birds and the rest of our natural heritage; lively action jumps from the pages.
As you explore this portfolio of his artwork, consider the complex story that each painting is telling and the fragile beauty it is depicting. Look at the Worm-eating Warblers eating pokeberries. It is a balanced, beautiful painting of curves and subtle colors; it shows all aspects of the adult birds' plumage, and it includes a bird foraging on dead leaves - a very characteristic behavior of Worm-eating Warblers. Notice in the painting "Green Heron," that Audubon shows us not only an adult male and "young in September " but also appropriate botanicals and a Luna Moth. Explore the frenzy of activity depicted in "Northern Bobwhites and Red-shouldered Hawk" and "Northern Mockingbirds." And finally, think of Audubon the conservationist when you view his painting of the Carolina Parakeets. Audubon knew that this species was declining and that birds in general were finite and often fragile because of the complex individual needs of each species. He knew that they needed and deserved conservation.