Painting Within Tent: Audubon’s birds 2

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Ivory Billed Woodpecker (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles about the paintings of John James Audubon (1785–1851), I ended with the publication of his huge collection of coloured prints of The Birds of America, and its companion volume of life-histories. For Audubon, this wasn’t an end, but another step in his progress, and he continued to add to his unique collection of paintings of birds.

Osprey and Weakfish
John James Audubon (1785–1851), Osprey and Weakfish (1829), oil on canvas on hardboard, 101.6 x 66.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Some of his studies and watercolours were used to create finished oil paintings, such as this Osprey and Weakfish from 1829. The western osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is a magnificent bird of prey which can be seen in many parts of the world. The weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) is a species common on the East Coast of the US, named because of the weakness of its mouth muscles, which often fail to retain a fisherman’s hook, allowing it to escape, something which hasn’t paid off on this occasion.

Speed Art Museum
John James Audubon (1785–1851), Savanna Finch (Fringilla savanna) (1831), watercolour on paper, 12.4 x 19 cm, Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY. Wikimedia Commons.

This watercolour study of a Savanna Finch (Fringilla savanna) was painted in 1831. It shows the small savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), which is found throughout North America.

During the 1830s, Audubon resumed his field trips to various parts of the US making further drawings and paintings of birds and animals. In 1833, he travelled to Labrador and Newfoundland, where he documented and drew dozens of species of birds.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Washington Sea Eagle (1836-39), oil on canvas, 116.8 x 84.5 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps inevitably, later analysis of Audubon’s paintings and books has resulted in controversy. This oil painting of a Washington Sea Eagle from 1836-39 is a prime example. Audubon claimed this as an example of a new species, which he named Falco washingtonii. However, he was unable to provide a specimen to support that claim, and more recent analysis suggests that this painting is based on a golden eagle, and is both plagiarist and invented, as a ploy to enlist more British subscribers to the first edition of his book.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Passenger Pigeon (1838), etching/engraving by Robert Havell (1793-1878), 41.3 x 29.1 cm, Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, Cincinnati, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

There can be no doubt as to the identity of Audubon’s Passenger Pigeon from 1838. At the time, this species (Ectopistes migratorius) was one of the most numerous and widespread birds of the US to the east of the Rocky Mountains. By the 1870s, though, it had suffered a sharp decline in numbers, largely from hunting and persecution by Europeans who had populated the US. Legislation to protect the species was enacted too late, and proved ineffective, so that by the 1890s it had all but vanished. Last examples in nature were seen around 1900, and in 1914 the last bird in captivity died, rendering the species extinct.

In 1841, Audubon settled with his family on an estate on the Hudson River, in northern Manhattan. From there he published a smaller, octavo edition of The Birds of America with additional illustrations, which he sold to 1,100 subscribers.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Douglas’s Squirrel (1841/43), pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper, 62.9 x 45.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Audubon’s fine watercolour of Douglas’s Squirrel from 1841/43 shows this species (Tamiasciurus douglasii) of pine squirrel from the Pacific Northwest of the US.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), White American Wolf (1845), colour lithograph on paper, 52 x 62.2 cm, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

This colour lithograph of a White American Wolf from 1845 is also controversial. Currently, the white-coated Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos) is known as a subspecies of grey wolf found in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, in the far north of Canada, not far from Greenland. Historically, other subspecies of wolves which have white coats have occurred further south. It’s not clear which subspecies this painting is based on, nor where Audubon may have encountered it in nature.

I also have three undated images derived from Audubon’s paintings.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), English Crow (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

English Crow shows what can only be the carrion crow (Corvus corone) which is extremely numerous throughout much of Europe. However, further north, in Scotland, for instance, the hooded crow (Corvus cornix) predominates. The two are easy to distinguish, and this is manifestly a carrion crow, which Audubon presumably saw when visiting Britain.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Ivory Billed Woodpecker (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

The Ivory Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is a spectacular species which, in Audubon’s day, was quite widely distributed along the southern section of the Eastern Seaboard and the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, again largely through hunting and destruction of its woodland habitat, its numbers have declined steeply, and it’s now classed as Critically Endangered, and may be extinct already.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Great Spotted Woodpecker (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

This Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is common in woodland across the Old World from Spain to Japan, but not found in North America. Presumably Audubon painted this when he was in Britain.

In 1848, Audubon’s health began to fail, just as he was completing the first volume of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which features many of his paintings of wildlife. He died in 1851, and shortly afterwards the second volume was published.