Audubon, and the Arts of Birding

You may have noticed that I like to get close to things. Perhaps it’s because I’m nearsighted, but I love to examine the patterns and details that only reveal themselves at the macro scale. A few weeks ago, I visited the New-York Historical Society to see the first installment of a three-year exhibition of John James Audubon’s watercolor paintings. I was flat out delighted to learn that the museum lends patrons a magnifying glass to get up close and personal with the birds.

Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), John James Audubon via the New-York Historical Society

I have a recent copy of Audubon’s masterwork, The Birds of America. The original book was made from prints of Audubon’s model paintings, some of which are on exhibit now. Considering the technology available at the time, the prints are a gorgeous accomplishment. But the process of turning the paintings into prints masked exquisite details perceptible in the original art. The magnifying glass brought them into focus: the delicate watercolor wash as cream fades to paper white on the face of a chickadee; the rainbow of colors that make up a crow’s midnight plumage; the precise pencil tracings that describe the vanes and rachis of each individual feather on a duck’s wing, painstaking work all but invisible from a distance. The paintings invite close, loving study.

Audubon taught himself how to paint. He taught himself how to observe birds and record their behaviors, and the result of that alchemy was a body of work that changed the way artists and naturalists looked at the world.

Since I saw the paintings in person, I’ve been taking pictures with an imaginary Audubon at my shoulder. I pulled out my crusty old watercolors and pristine paintbrushes, and doodled a few birds. I’ve wondered, scrubbing my brush across the paper, whose work did Audubon study to learn his art? And I’ve been thinking a lot about how he watched the speedy little featherbullets before the days of high-powered optics, as I frantically fire my camera at vanishing sparrows and dodgy blackbirds.

cardinal red-breasted nuthatchThis summer, I’m going to spend a week on Hog Island in Maine studying birds and learning to make better art, thanks to a scholarship from the National Audubon Society. It feels very full-circle-y for me to be moved by Audubon’s art and his example, and in turn to be hosted by the society his art inspired to save the birds in the first place. In a year, I’ll go back to the Historical Society to see the next crop of Audubon’s birds; by then, maybe I’ll have a modest flock of my own.


Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock continues on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society until May 19th. The main gallery was closed for a wedding reception when I went, so you may want to call ahead if you visit on a weekend. Go see it if you’re in the city, and be sure to grab a magnifying glass!

6 Replies to “Audubon, and the Arts of Birding”

  1. Congrats for getting that opportunity! That’s going to be a great project for this summer. Love the cardinal in that shot. Looks like he’s saying “cheeeeese”.

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