Few books are more famous than John James Audubon’s Birds of America. From the moment his birds began to emerge from the printing press in the 1820s, people marveled at their liveliness, as if the images might literally fly off the page in a ruffle of feathers. That liveliness was the product of Audubon’s genius and his love for the “feathered tribe,” but it was also the result of long, hard work. The artist traveled thousands of miles to watch, hunt, and draw his birds, neglecting his wife, children, and dry-goods business in the process. He then took his paintings to England and spent nearly infinite care supervising the preparation and printing of the 435 plates that make up the giant book. The result was a volume of such staggering charisma that it holds a whole fistful of auction records. For many decades until very recently, The Birds of America was by far the most expensive printed book in the world.
But the pictures are only half the story. Because of a quirk in British copyright law-and the usual writerly habit of missing deadlines-the texts Audubon wrote to accompany his images were published apart from the plates, appearing bit by bit throughout the 1830s. As a result, his words have always lingered in the shadows. That is a terrible pity, for Audubon was a gifted writer, and the word pictures he crafted for what he called the Ornithological Biography are just as much a virtuoso performance as the prints themselves. Audubon’s English has grace, imagination, and flair-rare qualities under any circumstance, but doubly impressive given that his first language was French; he only learned English as a teenager. Perhaps because of that, there is always the sense that Audubon took particular care in selecting his words, examining each from all sides before he used it, as if to double check its meaning and rhythm.
Audubon’s writing is, no surprise, strikingly visual, but it also has a quality that might be called experiential. Forever anxious about his lack of academic credentials, Audubon regularly defended his work by noting that others may have been more learned in anatomy and zoology, but only he knew the birds themselves, as they lived in their own world. “Nature,” he insisted “must be seen first alive, and well studied, before attempts are made at representing it.”* His readers could not share his experiences in the wilderness, so he tried very hard to bring the wilderness to them. That was why he insisted on depicting his birds at life size; and the same desire clearly shaped his writing. Over and over again he addresses his readers directly, with an urgency that is unusual in any sort of writing but especially in writing about art. He wants to take you by the hand and bring you with him, through the saw grass at the edge of a marsh, along a muddy riverbank, into the woods.
Of late, Audubon’s words have finally begun to come to the fore. The Library of America, which aims to collect the very best of American writing, issued a compilation of Audubon’s works, making him the only visual artist to join that elite group. So when we were planning a small exhibition of Audubon prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, we thought that it might be interesting to outsource the show’s labels to Audubon himself-to get him to do the work. He turned out to be a natural.
The best museum label is one that gets a visitor to slow down and look, and then look again. A label needs to send its reader back to the image, rather than pulling away. For all of its long, clause-laden nineteenth-century sentences, Audubon’s prose does just that. He is not shy: he speaks to readers directly, he tells them exactly what to look for, what they should see. Even when he is indulging himself by commenting on the suspect morals of the Blue Jay or comparing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker to a painting by van Dyck, he is also, at times almost surreptitiously, giving hints on how to look or pointing out a revealing detail. It’s a trick that many a curator would do well to learn.
The following portfolio contains a small selection of images from Birds, with excerpts from Audubon’s writing. The exhibition is on view through May 11.
“Doubtless, kind reader, you will say, while looking at the figures of Parakeets represented in the plate, that I spared not my labour. I never do, so anxious am I to promote your pleasure….They are quite at ease on trees or any kind of plant, moving sidewise, climbing or hanging in every imaginable posture, assisting themselves very dexterously in all their motions with their bills. They usually alight extremely close together. I have seen branches of trees as completely covered by them as they could possibly be. If approached before they begin their plundering, they appear shy and distrustful, and often at a single cry from one of them, the whole take wing, and probably may not return to the same place that day.”
“I have always imagined, that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of colouring of the great vandyke. The broad extent of its dark glossy body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings of its wings, neck, and bill, relieved by the rich carmine of the pendent crest of the male, and the brilliant yellow of its eye, have never failed to remind me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable artist’s pencil….This notion may seem strange, perhaps ludicrous, to you, good reader, but I relate it as a fact, and whether or not it may be found in accordance with your own ideas, after you have inspected the plate…is perhaps of little consequence.”
“When the Spoonbills are by themselves and feeding, they can easily be approached by those who, like yourself perhaps, are expert at crawling over the mud on hands and knees, through the tall and keen-edged saw-grass. I well recollect my own success when, after having seen three of these precious birds alight on their feeding grounds, about a quarter of a mile from where I stood, I managed, after something short of half an hour, to get within shot of them. Then, after viewing them for awhile unseen, I touched one of my triggers, and two of them fell upon the surface of the shallow water.”
American White Pelican
“Ranged along the margins of the sand-bar, in broken array, stand a hundred heavy-bodied Pelicans. Gorgeous tints, all autumnal, enrich the foliage of every tree around, the reflection of which, like fragments of the rainbow, seems to fill the very depths of the placid and almost sleeping waters of the Ohio. The subdued and ruddy beams of the orb of day assure me that the Indian summer has commenced, that happy season of unrivalled loveliness and serenity, symbolic of autumnal life, which to every enthusiastic lover of nature must be the purest and calmest period of his career. Pluming themselves, the gorged Pelicans patiently wait the return of hunger. Should one chance to gape, all, as if by sympathy, in succession open their long and broad mandibles, yawning lazily and ludicrously.”
“Reader, look at the plate in which are represented three individuals of this beautiful species-rogues though they be, and thieves, as I would call them, were it fit for me to pass judgment on their actions. See how each is enjoying the fruits of his knavery, sucking the egg which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent Dove or harmless Partridge! Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbour so much mischief;-that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection! Yet so it is, and how like beings of a much higher order, are these gay deceivers! Aye, I could write you a whole chapter on this subject, were not my task of a different nature.”
“Having arrived at Charleston, South Carolina, in October 1833…I received information that a pair of Owls (of the present species) had a nest in the upper story of an abandoned sugar-house….We ascended cautiously to the place, I having pulled off my boots to prevent noise. When we reached it I found a sort of large garret filled with sugar-moulds, and lighted by several windows, one of which had two panes broken. I at once discovered the spot where the Owls were, by the hissing sounds of the young ones, and approached slowly and cautiously towards them, until within a few feet, when the parent bird seeing me, flew quickly toward the window, touched the frame of the broken panes, and glided silently through the aperture.”
Black-bellied Darter (Anhinga)
“Many writers have described what they have been pleased to call the habits of the Anhinga; nay, some have presumed to offer comments upon them, and to generalize and form theories thereon, or even to inform us gravely and oracularly what they ought to be, when the basis of all their fancies was merely a dried skin and feathers appended. Leaving these ornithologists for the present to amuse themselves in their snug closets, I proceed to detail the real habits of this curious bird, as I have observed and studied them in Nature.”
* John James Audubon, Writings and Drawings (Library of America, New York, 1999), p. 756.
BENJAMIN WEISS is the Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Visual Culture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.