Gift #1087: Audubon’s Birds

I’ve been spending the evening trying to finish up a shawl.  I’m so close that it’s tantalizing and I thought with some dedicated work I could be binding off by tomorrow.  And that would mean I’ve finished two shawls and a cowl recently and would be allowed to start another project (and I have several vying for my interest).  And then I guess the shawl started to feel the vibes, because I got to the end of the row and was off.  I found the mistake, removed stitches, and worked it again… and it’s still off.  Yep, I get to remove at least 100 stitches, thereby effectively putting me about where I was last night at this time…  sigh…

So I decided it was time to blog to take my mind off the shawl problems.  I still have lots of Audubon photos to show from the exhibit and had been thinking about ways to organize them.  For today, I’d like to highlight several of my favorites that showcase nests.  Bird’s nests are among the most beautiful things on the planet.  They fall in somewhere between pumpkins and fern fronds.  Audubon’s work has always been appealing to me because of the natural way in which the birds are represented – on branches, in nests, rooted in their unique habitats.  I love the backgrounds almost even more than the birds.

Orchard Oriole

Imagine my surprise then, when we learned from the exhibit that Audubon himself did not paint the backgrounds!  He painted the birds and then left the backgrounds to assistants.  Joseph Mason traveled with Audubon for two years painting over 200 backgrounds.  50 were used in Audubon’s publication. However, Audubon did not credit his work at all and Mason left.  It was only because he signed his preparatory watercolors that we know of his involvement with The Birds of America.  Most of the prints shown are his work.  He was a supremely talented botanical painter – capturing the vegetation with acute scientific accuracy with the lush hand of an artist.  The texture is amazing and many of his tree trunks are rich with lichens and bark, creating myriad details of interest.   In later expeditions, Audubon turned to landscape artist George Lehman to paint the backgrounds.

Marsh Wren

As I toured the exhibit, it was obvious that the paintings when through several stylistic shifts, which is no doubt due to the various background artists.  Most of the print signage did not credit the backgrounds, but stylistically I think that the Meadowlark matches with Lehman’s method of painting.  He tends to paint larger areas of the background, encasing the majority of the canvas with a scene.  The date Audubon attributes to the work corresponds with when Lehman was traveling with him.  I’ll share more of his background work in a later post.

Eastern Meadowlark

I think it’s a shame that Audubon did not appreciate the talents of his colleagues enough to recognize their contributions to his work.  Certainly they enhance the scientific rigor of his watercolors by providing a reference for the bird’s habitat, the structure of nest, and the preferred vegetation types of each bird.  And they beautifully showcase the birds with complementary colors and detail.  I’m grateful that the exhibit took the effort to bring to light these talented artists who lived in the shadow of Audubon and helped create these masterpieces.

American Robin

Blessings to you,


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1 Response to Gift #1087: Audubon’s Birds

  1. Eliza Waters says:

    I learned something I didn’t know – that Audubon never painted the whole scene! Perhaps he paid them, so felt that was reward enough, like a ghost writer. Maybe he had a big ego, too, and didn’t want them to get credit! I’ve often enjoyed the botanical aspects more than the birds in some of the prints.

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