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John James Audubon And 'The Birds Of America'

This Program Is Rebroadcast From November 6, 2012.

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

Guests

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.’”

Gallery

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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  • nhoene

    I wanted to call in on your show this morning, but you ddin’t repeat the phone number. Loved hearing about Audubon’s life, his nemesis who disparaged him any chance he got, how he mixed his own colors, etc. But then I would have liked to hear more comments from listeners. I wanted to say that I grew up with Audubon prints on the library walls of our home in Duluth, MN, because my father (and grandfather) were insurance agents for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. For many, many years Northwestern Mutual (headquartered in Milwaukee) chose Audubon prints (reproductions, of course) as their signature premium. Every Christmas, my dad and all the other agents, sent Audubon calendars to policy holders; they sent Audubon birthday cards to clients each year; and when I’d go to a doctor’s office at the Duluth Clinic, I’d see an Audubon desk calendar with my dad’s name on it, and I’d know that doctor was a client of his. The framed prints on our library walls were ducks – Mallards, Wood Ducks, Kingfishers. To this day, I always recognize an Audubon in other buildings or homes, even if it’s a print I had never seen before. Often it is the marsh grasses or surrounding foliage that I recognize first, and then the bird. His style was so unique, it is unmistakable.

    • Barry Kort

      This Program Is Rebroadcast From November 6, 2012.

      That’s why there were no callers today.

      • nhoene

        Thanks. I was in the car driving and didn’t hear the beginning of the show.

  • Roberta Chadis

    Thank you so much for this program, and all of them!! Loved hearing all about Audubon and your guests, Roberta Olson and William Souder are fantastic!

  • nkandersen

    Hey Johnny! The podcast should appear in the regular rundown on the site, but if it isn’t working for you, the original broadcast of the show should have a playable option for you. http://onpoint.wbur.org/2013/03/19/john-james-audubon-and-the-birds-of-america

    - nick andersen
    web producer | on point radio

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