JOHN JAMES AUDUBON
An Appreciation by Al Reinert
John James Audubon saw the American wilderness and the wild creatures that lived there “in their last flourishing,” as Richard Rhodes expresses it in our film. The virginal land that Audubon encountered, explored, and documented was then on the cusp of the long brutal deflowering we are heirs to today, and it saddened him enormously. Because he was a careful observer of the natural world he perceived what was happening as early as the 1820s, and he wrote about it with poignancy and eloquence. He was the first great witness in the cause of conservation.
Audubon’s writings — nearly a million words in journals, letters, notebooks, and the five volumes of “ornithological biographies”—were merely a supplement to his true life’s work of painting America’s wild birds. The “feathered tribes,” as he called them, had captivated Audubon in boyhood, and he spent the next forty years learning to paint them to his satisfaction. The result was a paradigm shift in not just the style, but the very concept of wildlife art. Classical tradition had depicted wild creatures as denatured caricatures of themselves: stiff, insensate, alien and dull. They were rendered thus by studio draftsmen who rarely saw their subjects alive and didn’t see any need to.
Audubon, in contrast, plunged into the wilderness with gusto: hiking for miles, mucking through cypress swamps and snow drifts, climbing trees and cliffs, staking out nests, waiting patiently for days for a new species to exhibit itself. He knew all of their calls and songs and favorite meals, their courtship rituals and migratory patterns, how their feathers gleamed with subtle colors in the sunlight. From Texas to Newfoundland and Florida to Montana, he stalked and studied birds like an obsessive lover because that’s what he was when it came to birds.
"I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when the snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida keys, and their warm sea breezes; of the fence-rail, and the cotton-tree, and the migrations of tthe rice-bird; of the breaking up of winter in Labrador, and the melting of the snow on the forks of the Missouri; and owe an accession of health to these reminiscences of luxuriant nature."-Henry David Thoreau A Natural History of Massachusetts (1842)
He had to kill some of them to paint them properly, to his satisfaction. We might regard that harshly two centuries later but in Audubon’s day there were no cameras or even binoculars, no other way to examine the fine details of small flying creatures. And examine them he did, filling notebooks with caliper measurements of mandibles and tail feathers, crops and crowns and wing coverts, all so that he could get their proportions exactly right when he drew them. It was a necessary aspect of his work and he didn’t give it much thought in the beginning.
Consider also that there weren’t any supermarkets or factory farms then either, nor much in the way of refrigeration, so fresh-killed wild birds were an affordable dietary staple for millions of Americans, not only in the countryside but in cities and towns as well. Professional gunners hauled in wagonloads of dead birds every day, of every species remotely edible, and families devoured them every night. This protein harvest was regarded as part of America’s limitless bounty back then, and hardly anyone gave it a second thought.
But Audubon did. Always a careful observer, by the 1830s he began to notice declining populations of tastier species like Carolina Parakeets and Passenger Pigeons, and he lamented it. Both birds were extinct within eighty years. He was appalled and outraged by the egg-robbers he came across in Labrador, who stole entire generations of curlews and gannets by plundering their ground nests in annual raids. He was the most prophetic American of his era at sounding the alarm that our birds were in danger.
What he mostly did, though, was immortalize them. His 400-plus portraits of the birds of America show them so fully alive they are still captivating two hundred years later. His skill as an artist took wing with his subjects, grew with his devotion, honed itself in the wild, and flourished finally in a masterwork of nature love. In our film Jamie Wyeth, himself the gifted scion of America’s foremost family of naturalistic painters, ranks Audubon “right up there with Rembrandt and Michelangelo.” He says it with a bit of a chuckle, knowing it sounds like hyperbole, but no artist of Wyeth’s stature and pedigree would make that comparison lightly.
"I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could."-John James Audubon
We made Audubon: John James Audubon and the Birds of America in a similar right-up-there vein. We believe Audubon is vastly under-appreciated by a modern society that could use a big dose of his passion and commitment. He was after all the inspiration for America’s oldest conservation organization, the National Audubon Society, which began in the 1880s with ad hoc local chapters that formally incorporated in 1905. And it’s no accident that his statue surmounts the monumental east entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, flanked by his pioneer peers Daniel Boone and Lewis & Clark. Audubon’s legacy runs deep in America’s wilderness spirit, and we have tried to honor that by making the best film about him that we could.
We benefitted from the help and support of several esteemed institutions. First among these is the New York Historical Society, which has been the home of Audubon’s original watercolor drawings since they were purchased from his widow Lucy in 1863. And just across 77th Street in the aforementioned American Museum of Natural History are preserved specimens collected by Audubon himself, with tags in his handwriting noting when and where he gathered them. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, permitted us to film the only known Audubon oil painting of his signature turkey family. We must also acknowledge the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that beacon of avian science and protective efforts, for providing most of the birdsong that enlivens our soundtrack.
Our gratitude extends as well to the Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania; the Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky; and the Audubon State Historic Site in St. Francisville, Louisiana: each of them important places in Audubon’s life with invaluable collections and gracious curators.
And our thanks go out to the many dedicated birders we met along the way, whose ardent interest in the feathered tribes would greatly please John James.