In 1805, Jean Jacques Audubon was a twenty-year-old itinerant Frenchman of ignoble birth and indifferent education who had fled revolutionary violence in Haiti and then France to take refuge in frontier America. Ten years later, John James Audubon was an American citizen, entrepreneur, and family man whose fervent desire to “become acquainted with nature” had led him to reinvent himself as a naturalist and artist whose study of birds would soon earn him international acclaim. The drawings he made during this crucial decade—sold to Audubon’s friend and patron Edward Harris to help fund his masterwork The Birds of America, and now held by Harvard’s Houghton Library and Museum of Comparative Zoology—are published together here for the first time in large format and full color. In these 116 portraits of species collected in America and in Europe we see Audubon inventing his ingenious methods of posing and depicting his subjects, and we trace his development into a scientist and an artist who could proudly sign his artworks “drawn from Nature.” The drawings also serve as a record of the birds found in Europe and the Eastern United States in the early nineteenth century, some now rare or extinct.
The drawings are enhanced by an essay on the sources of Audubon’s art by his biographer, Richard Rhodes; transcription of Audubon’s own annotations to the drawings, including information on when and where the specimens were collected; ornithological commentary by Scott V. Edwards, along with reflections on Audubon as scientist; and an account of the history of the Harris collection by Leslie A. Morris.
Splendid in their own right, these drawings also illuminate the self-invention of one of the most important figures in American natural history. They will delight all those interested in American art, nature, birds, and the life and times of John James Audubon.
Audubon: Early Drawings is a record of nature and of Audubon’s own artistic apprenticeship—we can watch Audubon becoming Audubon. The earliest drawings—done in watercolor and, later, pastel—are simple profiles of birds silhouetted against the blank page with little in the way of natural context. They are delicate, hesitant, almost childlike renderings. Later drawings—made after Audubon had invented his celebrated technique of pinning dead birds into naturalistic poses—are more lifelike and animated, more confidently rendered. These look toward the fully realized images of The Birds of America, with their intense drama and implied narratives. Even at an early stage this self-taught artist possessed a powerful sense of color and a keen sensitivity to the way light can model a form. Yet we see him reaching the limits of his technique in his almost-but-not-quite depiction of the male wood grouse’s variegated plumage. Mastery would come later. Each rendering in Audubon: Early Drawings gets both a full-page reproduction and a facing-page commentary. About a bird known as the Willet, shown with a worm squirming in its beak, we read: ‘The May date of this drawing tells us that Audubon crossed paths with the Willet during the spring migration between its wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and the Caribbean and its breeding areas in wetlands of the interior West.’ We are right there with Audubon, his traveling bird and the unlucky worm.
Before [Birds of America] made him famous, [Audubon] had spent decades trying to find a way to make his birds appear to fly off the page. This collection of 116 early drawings, published together for the first time, shows that while his early birds didn’t quite take off, they did have a delicacy and charm that somehow went missing from his later masterworks.
One of the great pleasures of Audubon: Early Drawings, with its lavish reproductions and scientific notes, is that it allows us to see the naturalist turning into the artist, laboring not merely to give his birds scientific accuracy but an almost uncanny life force.
This is the first book to collect and reproduce the pastel, ink, and watercolor studies from early in [Audubon’s] career—it’s not hard to glean the first principle that makes his illustrations so effective: spareness. Although Audubon usually sketches in some contextual clues—a tree stump, some sand, three or four leaves—his pages are remarkably blank. What he is really studying is the bird, so Audubon surrounds the specimen—the osprey, the bullfinch, or the linnet—in white, letting his notes take care of the habitat, migration patterns, and the rest. Audubon preemptively limits the context, isolating and foregrounding the more salient details so we know at a glance what’s important and what isn’t.
In 1805, Jean-Jacques (later to become John James) Audubon, the son of a chambermaid who worked on his father’s plantation in Saint-Domingue, was a refugee in America from revolutionary violence in Haiti and France, and still many years away from the celebrity he was later to achieve as a wildlife illustrator. Yet, as Audubon: Early Drawings clearly demonstrates, he used the next ten years to lay the foundations for the mastery he was to acquire in bird illustration. As these drawings, which include European as well as American species, eloquently show, he had above all mastered the art of imbuing the dead specimens from which he worked with a vitality that makes them look for all the world like birds seen in the wild.
These drawings are interesting not just because of their seemingly naive charm, but also because of their great technical distance from the work produced in Birds of America. In this collection, the birds appear in more or less stilted poses, usually in profile. They appear almost always on an otherwise empty page. Audubon offers terse notes to describe their habits, a practice he dropped in Birds.
These 116 early Audubons from the collections of Harvard University provide a perspective on the development of the artist’s mature style. In accordance with established ornithological presentation of the time, most of the birds are stiffly posed in profile with little or no background. Some drawings, however, show their subjects in action or include details of diet or habitat—approaches Audubon took to portray specimens as ‘drawn from Nature’ in his monumental The Birds of America. The watercolors and pastels of the European species were executed in France in 1805 and 1806, and those of the North American birds date from 1805 to 1821. The captions discuss when and where Audubon collected the specimens. Morris, Rhodes, and Edwards contribute essays on the history of the drawings, the artist’s life, and his science.
Drawings [Audubon] made during the period leading up to the publication of his famous The Birds of America are held by the Houghton Library and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and are published together here for the first time in large format and full color. Audubon biographer Richard Rhodes provides background to their creation. Also included are transcriptions of Audubon’s annotations to the drawings and ornithological commentary on Audubon’s depictions of birds found in Europe and the Eastern United States in the early nineteenth century, some now rare or extinct.
Prior to the publication of Birds of America, John James Audubon spent decades honing his talents. Audubon: Early Drawings sheds insight into Audubon’s trajectory as an artist and naturalist, offering 116 bird and mammal images from the fledgling stages of his career… A wide-eyed belted kingfisher is charming with a disheveled crown of slate blue plumes. Meanwhile, the composition of a Carolina parakeet perched among pecan branches is appealing not only for its organic symmetry but for its value as one of the few visual records of the now-extinct species—a reminder of Audubon’s timeless relevance.
Impressive in its oblong shape and handsomely slip-cased in cloth, Audubon: Early Drawings represents the first large-format full-color publication of the Harris Collection [in the Houghton Library at Harvard University], comprising 116 depictions of species Audubon collected in the United States and Europe, dating primarily between 1805 and 1832. Because they are the product of his own hand, and not the intermediary hands of engravers and colorists, these drawings convey a wonderful immediacy. Graphite, ink, and pastels were his preferred mediums—pastels proving early on more satisfying and more easily manipulated than watercolors. And by noting the dates of each work we witness the gradual refinement of his technique: before 1810 the meticulous attention to details of feathers, feet, and claws seems almost naive against the relative flatness of his colors. By 1810, however, we see the emerging hand of the master in such finely delineated and colored works as the Frog Eater (Redshouldered Hawk) of 1810 and the pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers of 1812.
John James Audubon’s distinctive role in American ornithology, natural history, and art has long been acknowledged by the numerous volumes that have been published on his life, career, and accomplishments. This handsome volume further contributes to an understanding of the diverse genius and artistic creativity of Audubon by presenting, in meticulously printed colored plates, 116 of his earliest bird drawings (American and European) from the collections of the Houghton Library and Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Beginning in 1805 with one of his earliest drawings, these plates allow readers to examine Audubon’s evolving style and skills as an ornithological artist. Each plate is accompanied by the name given the species by Audubon; the location where the bird was observed, or collected; and the date. Particularly interesting are the ornithological notes on the natural history and unique characteristics of the species included with each plate. These plates are known as the Harris Collection, and a brief but informative essay provides an introduction to this Harvard collection.
- 288 pages
- 14 x 11 inches
- Belknap Press
- Introduction by Richard Rhodes
- Notes by Scott V. Edwards
- Foreword by Leslie A. Morris
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