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


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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