Feathers and Art_ Unraveling the Legacy of Audubon's Birds of America

Feathers and Art: Unraveling the Legacy of Audubon’s Birds of America

Have you ever seen a painting of a bird that looked so real and detailed? One man’s beautiful bird artwork made people feel that sense of wonder over 150 years ago, and his work still influences nature artists today. He was none other than John James Audubon, and his famous book is called Audubon’s Birds of America.

Who was John James Audubon?

Despite being born in Haiti in 1785, Audubon spent his early years living in France with his plantation-owning father. When he was younger, he enjoyed going on nature hikes and seeing wildlife. Audubon’s primary passion was nature, despite his father’s desire for him to become a sailor.

In 1803, Audubon’s father got him fake travel papers so he could go to the American frontier. After moving to a farm in Pennsylvania, Audubon continued to hunt, explore the natural world, and trade goods. Despite having no formal training in art or science, Audubon traveled extensively and studied birds in their natural habitats for many years.

What is Birds of America?

Finished in 1838 after over 10 years of work, Birds of America is a collection of 435 life-size pictures of over 700 different bird species found in North America. The huge book measures over 3 feet by 2 feet when open. Further, this double-elephant size was picked so Audubon could draw the bird’s actual life size.

To create the pictures, Audubon would hunt birds and wire their bodies into natural life-like poses. He would closely study the tiny details of their feathers, beaks, eyes, feet, and wings before carefully drawing them in great detail on large sheets of paper using different printing methods.  

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  • Each bird picture is not just a flat drawing

Audubon brought them to vivid life by placing them in realistic habitats doing natural things like soaring, perching on branches, carrying nesting materials, or feeding their babies. The lush, detailed settings show the birds’ real homes and lives.

Why was Birds of America so groundbreaking?

Audubon’s great work was revolutionary for its time for a few main reasons:

Dramatic Life-Sized Pictures

Before Audubon, bird artists usually made small pictures just showing the birds with no background. The enormous life-size scale and vivid natural scenes in Birds of America were brand new and had never been done before for birds.

Scientific Accuracy

Though not a trained scientist, Audubon was a skilled naturalist observer. His super-accurate depictions of the birds’ anatomy, feather patterns, behaviors, and habitats set a new scientific standard for bird illustrations. Audubon insisted on perfectly capturing each species exactly as he saw them in the wild, not just from dead stuffed birds.  

Storytelling Power  

More than just documenting what the birds looked like, Audubon’s art told stories about the secret lives of birds. His action scenes gave viewers a vivid peek into the birds’ behaviors, daily activities, and natural homes. People felt transported into the wilderness right alongside the winged creatures.

How was Birds of America created?  

Making the lavish pictures for Birds of America was an extremely ambitious and difficult task that took Audubon over a decade of hard work:

Traveling and Observing

Before he could paint the birds, Audubon had to find them and watch them closely in the wild. He spent years traveling thousands of miles across the American frontier, forests, and coasts – from the Everglades in Florida to maritime Canada and even Kentucky. On these trips, he hunted birds, made detailed sketches and notes, and measured them while studying their behaviors and homes up close.

Drawing the Pictures

Back at his studio, Audubon used his field observations and sketches along with wired bird bodies to meticulously draw each species in vivid color and fine detail. He was a master at realistically capturing light, proportions, and expressions using new techniques like reducing blank background space and adding subtle shading and textures.

Printing the Artwork  

Reproducing Audubon’s lavish pictures in book form was very challenging. He used a variety of complex old printing methods including etching, engraving, and hand-coloring. His published books were printed on special high-quality paper and colored by skilled artists and Audubon himself. Just doing all the printing took over 10 years.

Getting Funding

Publishing Birds of America was extremely expensive due to the enormous paper size and complexity involved. Audubon spent years finding wealthy people to financially support the project and pre-order subscription copies in Europe and America. He sought subscribers from all levels of society including the British queen, the American president, and the European aristocracy.  

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The Legacy of Birds of America

Audubon’s pioneering book represented a bold new artistic and scientific way of seeing that revolutionized bird illustration and study. His vivid, life-size scenes brought the world of birds into people’s homes in an accessible way never seen before.  

Today, Birds of America is considered an invaluable historic treasure and a masterpiece of American art and natural science. Its impact went far beyond just documenting birds – it sparked a new widespread appreciation for the fragile beauty and diversity of bird species and their rapidly vanishing natural habitats.

Wrap Up

You can still see Audubon’s lasting influence today in nature artwork, bird photography books, field guides, conservation education efforts, and more. Thanks to his dedication and artistry, the secrets of North American bird life were opened for all to admire and help protect.

Welcome to Arader Books! We are your premier destination for unique and rare books. Step inside, and you’ll discover treasures such as The Birds of America Book, a true gem that is hard to find elsewhere.


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