Something of the encyclopedic spirit must have been in the air when John J. Audubon was born in Haiti. In 1785, ten years had passed since Diderot published his Encyclopedia but in Audubon the need for total knowledge persisted. The illegitimate son of a Frenchman, a ship’s captain and plantation owner, his mother was the captain’s French lover. He was brought up in Nantes and sent at the age of 18 to the US, near Philadelphia.

And that is when he became passionate about birds. He hunted them, studied and drew them, and he wrote in one of his texts: “My desire to shoot them however was restrained by my anxiety to study their habits as closely as possible.”

He was the first person to carry out what is now known as experiments of tagging, tying a ribbon to a bird’s foot to trace its movements and study its migration patterns.

Audubon owned a silk shop but he can’t have been a very good businessman as he ended up in prison a bankrupt. After that incident he decided to abandon business and the idea for his magnum opus came to him: to draw all the species of birds in the US. He traveled while his wife gave classes to the children of the plantation owners, and that is what they lived off. In his texts he describes how he would go in search of the birds, often on horseback and in areas of the US that were then difficult to access. He killed the birds and took them away to dissect them in order to draw them in full detail. Sometimes he stuffed them himself and placed them in unusual poses that we can still observe today in his drawings, which are to scale. Audubon’s birds were a reference point for people such as Tory Peterson, who compiled the first bird field guide, and they continue to be for the new generations of naturalists.

flamingoWhen he had enough drawings Audubon went to Europe, where he was an instant success. The 345 illustrations of Birds of America were published as a book. Audubon wrote a text for each one of the birds, explaining in detail how he found it, approached it and hunted it. He also describes each bird’s habits and behavior, how they move on the ground, how is their flight and how they swim. He also made a detailed description of their physical characteristics and the differences between the male and female. For the publication of the book he collaborated with important European ornithologists. Such was the success of Birds of America that a pocket edition was also printed.

Audubon’s final work, which was unfinished, was similar to the bird project, but focusing on mammals. Audubon always advocated the conservation of birds and in his final texts he also spoke of the need for protection. And which is why one of the largest conservation organizations now carries his name.

His illustrations show much more than a mere scientific interest. He portrays each bird with in a particular pose: eating a fish, feeding its chicks or singing. His hand captured the textures of their feathers and something in their gaze that we could call ‘personality.’ In his watercolors we can appreciate birds’ diversity, not only in their colors but their attitudes, their coexistence with flora and with other birds, Canadian poet Anne Carson wrote a poem dedicated to Audubon that reads: “Audubon colors dive in through your retina/ like a searchlight/ roving shadowlessly up and down the brain.” His birds are an amalgamation in which art and science coincide in something that has always united them: the search for knowledge.

Audubon’s illustrations can be found in exhibitions organized by the New York Historical Society, which houses the originals. But the National Audubon Society webpage contains digital versions of all of them, together with their texts: http://www.audubon.org

Something of the encyclopedic spirit must have been in the air when John J. Audubon was born in Haiti. In 1785, ten years had passed since Diderot published his Encyclopedia but in Audubon the need for total knowledge persisted. The illegitimate son of a Frenchman, a ship’s captain and plantation owner, his mother was the captain’s French lover. He was brought up in Nantes and sent at the age of 18 to the US, near Philadelphia.

And that is when he became passionate about birds. He hunted them, studied and drew them, and he wrote in one of his texts: “My desire to shoot them however was restrained by my anxiety to study their habits as closely as possible.”

He was the first person to carry out what is now known as experiments of tagging, tying a ribbon to a bird’s foot to trace its movements and study its migration patterns.

Audubon owned a silk shop but he can’t have been a very good businessman as he ended up in prison a bankrupt. After that incident he decided to abandon business and the idea for his magnum opus came to him: to draw all the species of birds in the US. He traveled while his wife gave classes to the children of the plantation owners, and that is what they lived off. In his texts he describes how he would go in search of the birds, often on horseback and in areas of the US that were then difficult to access. He killed the birds and took them away to dissect them in order to draw them in full detail. Sometimes he stuffed them himself and placed them in unusual poses that we can still observe today in his drawings, which are to scale. Audubon’s birds were a reference point for people such as Tory Peterson, who compiled the first bird field guide, and they continue to be for the new generations of naturalists.

flamingoWhen he had enough drawings Audubon went to Europe, where he was an instant success. The 345 illustrations of Birds of America were published as a book. Audubon wrote a text for each one of the birds, explaining in detail how he found it, approached it and hunted it. He also describes each bird’s habits and behavior, how they move on the ground, how is their flight and how they swim. He also made a detailed description of their physical characteristics and the differences between the male and female. For the publication of the book he collaborated with important European ornithologists. Such was the success of Birds of America that a pocket edition was also printed.

Audubon’s final work, which was unfinished, was similar to the bird project, but focusing on mammals. Audubon always advocated the conservation of birds and in his final texts he also spoke of the need for protection. And which is why one of the largest conservation organizations now carries his name.

His illustrations show much more than a mere scientific interest. He portrays each bird with in a particular pose: eating a fish, feeding its chicks or singing. His hand captured the textures of their feathers and something in their gaze that we could call ‘personality.’ In his watercolors we can appreciate birds’ diversity, not only in their colors but their attitudes, their coexistence with flora and with other birds, Canadian poet Anne Carson wrote a poem dedicated to Audubon that reads: “Audubon colors dive in through your retina/ like a searchlight/ roving shadowlessly up and down the brain.” His birds are an amalgamation in which art and science coincide in something that has always united them: the search for knowledge.

Audubon’s illustrations can be found in exhibitions organized by the New York Historical Society, which houses the originals. But the National Audubon Society webpage contains digital versions of all of them, together with their texts: http://www.audubon.org

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