John James Audubon’s Great Egret (Ardea alba), 1821. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.
NEW YORK - It’s rare and thrilling when science and art are one. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings—not only are they beautiful, but they contributed immeasurably to science. Just by looking and drawing, he furthered the world’s knowledge of the human body.
Certainly the work of John James Audubon, the great 19th-century naturalist and artist, is in the same category. Now the New-York Historical Society is beginning a three-year homage to Audubon’s legendary The Birds of America, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its of acquisition of all 474 exquisite watercolors. First up of three shows is “Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock,” beginning March 8.
John James Audubon’s Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Study for Havell pl. no. 121, 1829. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.
Audubon was a fascinating character, a Frenchman born in Haiti in 1785 who ended up spending much of his life in New York City and then in other parts of the young United States, trying to find new birds to paint. He ended up discovering 25 new species—an incredible achievement. He was the Lewis & Clark of ornithology, in a time when some very brave people were exploring a still-wild land.
His achievements as an explorer were extraordinary, but we wouldn’t remember him as well if he hadn’t been such a talented draughtsman. This guy could really paint. I lost a few hours on this website, where you can see the whole flock. And he placed each bird in a suggestive, enhancing context, as with the spooky clouds and dead tree that frame his Snowy Owl, from Volume 2. He was a crack ornithologist and a scientist, yes, but he had a great artist’s ability to tell a story, too.