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John James Audubon And ‘The Birds Of America.’

Into the woods. How John James Audubon hunted, pinned, and painted his masterpiece, “The Birds of America.”

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), Study for Havell pl. no. 26, ca. 1825, John James Audubon. (New-York Historical Society)

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), Study for Havell pl. no. 26, ca. 1825, John James Audubon. (New-York Historical Society)

Everybody knows Audubon and his birds.  The big, dramatic paintings and prints of the birds of America.  Early America, when a man could look out a stagecoach window, or off a steamboat, and see birds to boggle the mind.

When a buckskinned painter could, as Audubon did, just shoot them – easy as pie – and bring them home to pin up on the wall and paint.  John James Audubon and his birds became American icons.

But his story is a wild one.  Born in Haiti.  Raised in France.  Broke in America until he found his calling, late.  And then, by some, reviled.

This hour, On Point:  Audubon.

-Tom Ashbrook


Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society. (Current exhibition.) Author of “Audubon’s Aviary: the Original Watercolors for The Birds of America.” Professor emeritus of art history at Wheaton College.

William Souder, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-nominated book, “Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds Of America.” (@wasouder1)

From Tom’s Reading List

Wired “One little-appreciated aspect of Audubon’s work is his technical virtuosity, said Olson. ‘He’d stain, wet the pastels, put the watercolor on top of it, then outline every vein and barbule of a feather,’ she said. ‘For the Carolina parakeets, you get the idea of these birds calling out to you and flying in your face. When you turn the watercolor, they sparkle. They are alive.’”

The New York Times “If John James Audubon had been less avian in his ambitions, he might have made a career as a portrait painter, which is how, on occasion, he supported himself while longing to paint birds and ‘go in pursuit of those beautiful and happy creatures.’”


Excerpt: “Under A Wild Sky” by William Souder

In the fall of 1813, while traveling in Kentucky, Audubon encountered an immense flock of Passenger Pigeons:

“Mounting his horse and moving on, Audubon found the pigeon numbers increasing as he went. Although it was midday, the sky darkened. Audubon said it reminded him of an eclipse. Pigeon droppings fell like snow, and Audubon felt himself lulled into something like a trance as he listened to the rush of wings overhead….By the end of the day, Audubon reached Louisville. The pigeons were still flying, their ranks undiminished. Near the river the pigeons descended— not alighting but merely flying low over the broad Ohio. Audubon found the riverbanks at Louisville ‘crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting.’ The whole population was ‘all in arms,’ Audubon said, destroying pigeons by the ‘multitudes.’ When he went to bed that night, the pigeons were still flying, the roaring columns of the great flock spanning the sky. The next morning, the were still passing overhead. So it went for three consecutive days, with no pause as the birds streamed past. Nobody in Louisville could talk of anything else. Everyone ate pigeon meat all day. The air smelled of pigeons.”

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  • Coastghost

    Had Audubon NOT depicted the Carolina parakeets in all their glory, they might still be with us. Audubon routinely (exclusively?) would kill and stuff his subjects, not the practice of British limericist and natural illustrator Edward Lear, who offered most of his depictions of live models. Don’t know if Audubon slaughtered all seven depicted in his brilliant rendering of the “Carolina parrot” (Psitacus carolinensis), but he’d’ve had to kill at least one pair, and that one pair theoretically could have helped keep the species alive: perhaps possibly maybe, on the basis of Audubon’s stunning portrayal, the birds were hunted to extinction by the early years of the 20th century so that their plumage could adorn ladies’ hats and apparel. Maybe our geneticists will be able to revive the species by this century’s end, as long as women’s fashions permit, but no thanks to John James Audubon (himself just as extinct). 

    • 1Brett1


      And they became extinct in the early 20th century, nearly ninety years after Audubon painted them…some historical context and a fuller fleshing out of the facts is what’s needed in your post.

      • 1Brett1

        A thumb’s up for mentioning Edward Lear.

      • Coastghost

        Hmmm: let’s further fault Audubon for not positing a cure or treatment for naive literalism, shall we? (Risibility Quotients seem utterly low in this Forum, across the board.)

        • 1Brett1

          Well, Lear painted from birds in the zoo, hardly a comparison. 

          While the practice of killing birds to paint them is not something I wish to forgive easily, I think your attributing some correlation between Audubon’s painting Carolina parrots and their extinction needs more verifiable direct evidence. 

          You paint an incomplete picture, rendering it an inaccurate picture, no matter how much you wish to cover that up with pseudo-intellectualism and opportunistic, feigned, moral high ground.

          Your potshot about literal naivete seems most cheap and defensive. 

          • JobExperience

            Some would be satisfied when extinct birds are digitized in cyberspace. 

          • 1Brett1

            Is this a segment on Audubon’s work in its historical context? Or is it a platform for a political stance about modern conservation?

      • http://twitter.com/ettolebb Nellla

         he also kill the indians,

        • 1Brett1

          “the indians”?! …Oh yeah, you’re enlightened. Um…(I’m almost afraid to ask) do you have any proof?

  • northeaster17

    We typically refer to “great multitudes of wildlife” as nusiance. Most of us have never seen such great sights. It’s a shame and a lost legacy. Makes me wonder what our decendents will see and how they will regard our conduct to the wild that is left around us.

  • Gregg Smith

    I keep a pair of binoculars in my boat and particularly enjoy watching water foul. Our property has a half mile of riverfront with zero houses. The river leads to an 800 acre lake (full of fish) with only 4 houses. Wildlife abounds. We see lots of Blue herons and green ones too. Grebes, ducks and geese are everywhere. On two occasions I saw a bald eagle.

    • JobExperience

       It won’t last unless you oppose development.
      The silt alone will kill it all.

      • Gregg Smith

        The river was impounded in 1925, so far so good.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Good thing he wasn’t doing “Birds of Africa” or “Birds of Australia”!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1262384417 Brian R Furst

    This show got me looking at Audubon prints again.  In admiring his Golden Eagle print I notice what appears to be a man crossing a fallen tree bridge.  Is this a depiction of himself?  Fascinating.  

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