Listen to part of a lecture in an art history class. The professor has been discussing illustrated books.
I want to take a look at one particular book to give you an idea about what was involved in publishing illustrated books in the 1800s.
The book’s called The Birds of America, and the illustrator was John James Audubon.
So … The Birds of America … four volumes which contained illustrations of nearly every bird in the United States, over 400 birds, all hand-colored, all painted life-sized, the larger birds printed on the largest printing paper available at that time.
This required a lot of dedication, and Audubon is best remembered as an incredibly meticulous, accurate artist, a very accomplished illustrator of the natural world.
And while there were other artists working on similar projects at the same time,
Audubon’s book remains the most well-known and successful of its kind.
But, uh, let’s talk a bit about Audubon himself first.
First of all, Audubon was not a traditional painter,
and by this, I mean that he didn’t work in oils.
He preferred to use watercolor and pastel crayons, and he worked on paper instead of on canvas.
The thing is, Audubon considered the illustrations in his book, not the original watercolors, to be the finished product.
His watercolors were merely preparatory studies, most of which were painted while he was observing birds in the wild.
These watercolors were then sent to his printer, who created the final prints for the book.
And Audubon was so concerned with accuracy that he often scribbled notes to the printer around the edges of these original watercolors.
In fact, you might question whether producing a work of art was even Audubon’s goal.
Now, when I look at an Audubon illustration, I see a work of art.
But, it may make more sense to consider Audubon, first and foremost, as a naturalist, as a scientist.
See, the early nineteenth century when Audubon was painting was a time of major scientific inquiry.
And an essential way of spreading scientific knowledge was through illustrated books.
So what did Audubon consider himself? An artist or a scientist?
I’m not sure the distinction between the two was all that clear in the 1800s.
I think we can accurately state that … that the driving force in his art was getting the science right.
And this was perhaps a point that critics of his artwork at the time just didn’t appreciate.
Audubon also studied birds in ways that didn’t directly inform his art.
Uh, you know what bird banding is, right?
A bird has a band attached to its foot so we can learn about things like migration patterns.
Well, the first recorded instance of anyone doing that, it was Audubon.
Another example, a common belief at the time was that vultures use their sense of smell to find food.
Audubon didn’t believe that, so he tested it.
He put a large painting of a dead sheep in a field, and sure enough: vultures found it and started pecking at it.
Now, Audubon’s work was very accurate, and we know this because we can compare his illustrations to the birds around us.
But sometimes it’s not possible to check.
There’re actually several birds in his book that no one’s ever seen.
These are sometimes called Audubon’s “mystery birds,” because even though he drew them, there’s no evidence that they exist in the wild.
For someone who’s respected as a naturalist, isn’t it strange to think that he drew some birds that don’t appear to be real?
For example, there’s an illustration that appears to be a type of warbler, a small bird.
It has a white ring around its eyes and white bars on its wings.
No one’s ever seen a warbler like this,
so some people wonder if Audubon maybe forgot certain details about this bird when he painted it,
or that he copied another artist’s work. But considering that Audubon was such a meticulous artist.
Well, there might be a better answer.
Hybridization is something that’s well known in birds.
And it definitely explains a rather unique-looking duck Audubon painted.
He himself suggested that maybe it wasn’t an unknown species, but a hybrid, born from two different species.
Since then, this particular crossing of species has actually been recorded, both in the wild and in captivity,
so it turns out that Audubon was right, and this duck actually was a hybrid.