The Birds of America at SAM

By Brenda Tipton


If you, like some art historians, consider Audubon's watercolors simply drawings on paper by an amateur naturalist, the Seattle Art Museum's Audubon Exhibit may cause you to reconsider. Ninety of Audubon's watercolors for The Birds of America, organized by The New York Historical Society from its permanent collection, are on exhibit through January 7. These are the real thing - the original and seldom-seen watercolors - not the monumental engravings, popular lithographs, or calendar reproductions. "Those who think of Audubon as a knobby-kneed, bespectacled bird watcher should think again," says local art critic Greg Berkman, " He adopted the buckskin clothing of the American Indians he saw and admired, grew his hair long, and slicked it back with bear grease. His method for getting birds to stay still long enough to draw them was often to shoot them." As both artist and hunter he observed birds at length in their habitats when other bird painters knew only skins and stuffed specimens.
[Above right: Cliff Swallow, 1820, watercolor, graphite, pastel, brown ink, 14.5x12 in. Photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society.]

Born on a sugar plantation in Haiti in 1785, he was the illegitimate son of French naval captain John Audubon and Jeanne Rabine, a Creole woman who died shortly after his birth. He was sent to live in Nantes, France where he was legally adopted by his father and his wealthy French wife, Anne Moynet. Schooled in the ways of the French gentry, he found little inspiration in the classroom, preferring to roam the countryside watching animals and sketching birds.

In 1803, mainly to avoid Napoleon's conscription, Audubon was sent to the United States to manage his father's property at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia. Business, proved to be as unfulfilling for him as schoolwork; he wanted to draw. Despite the fact that he had no formal training in art, he was a skillful enough artist to give drawing lessons in exchange for English lessons. Years later the success of those English lessons paid off when he wrote of episodes of life in America during the turbulent 1800's in his Ornithological Biography. His writings are now considered literary treasures.

After marrying the girl next door, Lucy Blakewell, he moved to Kentucky and later Ohio where he was involved in a series of low-paying occupations and failed business ventures. His wife's help and support were critical to him, enabling him to pursue his art.

His quixotic ambition of painting and publishing all the birds of his adopted country could be viewed as ludicrous given the paucity of his art and science education. Nonetheless, by 1820 he had decided to devote the rest of his life to, in his own words, "drawing each American bird in its natural size and coloring." Audubon's artistic genius and empathy with the natural world matched his obsession. Eventually, he completed 435 life-size portraits, The Birds of America but was unable to find a publisher for them, at least in America.

[Above left: Anhinga, 1822, watercolor, graphite, pastel, oil paint, 28.5x20.25 in. Photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society].

The success that had eluded him in the United States was his for the taking in Europe. Europeans were fascinated by the wild appearance of the man and his vivid descriptions of the American wilderness. Not only was he able to find a publisher in England, but the artist, a gifted raconteur, was able to persuade enough people to buy subscriptions to the massive works so that he could make some money. Armed with his European triumph, he returned to America in 1829 where he continued to produce. He later completed the five-volume Ornithological Biography, and The Viviparous Quadrupeds. Audubon's later years were spent in prosperity on a property on the Hudson in New York where he retired. Reaching the West Coast was the one dream he still hadn't realized when he died in 1851. The Birds of America has made that dream come true.

The Audubon Exhibit at SAM is a unique opportunity to view Audubon's original works and to appreciate his skills an an observer and interpreter of nature. Guided docent tours are available for the exhibit by calling 654-3123. A series of lectures and talks by Audubon experts, including Theodore Stebbins are also scheduled.

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