Arts & Culture

J.J. Audubon the beginner featured in new book

6 min read

Although the name John James Audubon is synonymous with beautifully detailed, scientifically accurate drawings of birds, Audubon actually started out in life as a rather unskilled artist. He spent years honing his artistic talents, as well as the techniques that made his work seem so lifelike, before he ever published his famous masterwork, “Birds of America.” Many of his early drawings were destroyed by Audubon himself, but an intriguing selection remains in the collections of Harvard’s Houghton Library and the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). These works have now found their way into “Audubon: Early Drawings,” due out this month from Harvard University Press; and, to mark its release, a special lecture is scheduled for today (Sept. 18) at 6 p.m. at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In the introduction to “Audubon: Early Drawings,” the artist’s biographer Richard Rhodes writes that Audubon, one of the most important figures in American natural history, developed his fondness for birds early on. Audubon’s father encouraged him as a young boy to observe birds in the woods in France, even catching birds for him. By late childhood Audubon had begun drawing these birds, a hobby he continued when, in his late teens, his father sent him to America to avoid conscription into the French army.

There, in Mill Grove, Pa., Audubon met his wife-to-be, Lucy, whose uncle trained him to be a merchant. Once established, he returned to France to seek in person his father’s permission to marry, and once married, he partnered with a friend to open a general store. Despite his business endeavors, he continued to follow his passion for sketching birds, both in America and Europe as the opportunity warranted. He would ultimately make it his life’s work, publishing his famous “Birds of America” in 1840-44.

The 116 drawings gathered into “Audubon: Early Drawings,” never before published as a group, date from 1805 through 1823 and many include Audubon’s own notes on each species. An accompanying essay by Scott V. Edwards, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and curator of ornithology at the MCZ, provides ornithological commentary as well as reflections on Audubon as a scientist. In places, Edwards also corrects Audubon’s early misidentifications of species.

Divided into three sections — American, European, and exotic birds — the drawings also serve to show which birds, some now rare or extinct, were found in Europe and the eastern United States in the early 19th century.

They also run the artistic gamut.

“In Audubon’s early work you can see that he didn’t know how to draw terribly well. They’re clearly the drawings of a beginner,” said Leslie Morris, curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, who penned a history for “Audubon: Early Drawings” detailing how these pieces came to be saved. “Later he became much more accurate, and it’s interesting to see how he developed as an artist through his drawings.”

Audubon claimed that he studied art in France under the famed Jacques-Louis David. “However, no one has ever been able to prove that he was there,” said Morris. “He seems to have been largely self-taught.”

Audubon’s earliest bird images are simple, flat profiles, after the style of the period. At most, he might pose a bird on a branch or stone. However, as time went on he craved to create something more lifelike on the page. He began to experiment with context — adding more detailed background scenery that showed a species in its natural habit — and, of course, with motion, a challenge as the specimens he copied were lifeless.

Innovation struck in the form of wires anchored in a gridded board. This allowed him to pose birds more realistically by sinking the sharpened wire into the bird’s body; the grid helped him render the creature proportionately correct. “This gave him a lot more flexibility when drawing,” said Morris, “and his drawings began to evolve into the more complex images he is remembered for. The attention is always on his ‘Birds of America’ where you can see Audubon using multiple poses for the birds and putting them in context. It was a monumental effort, an elephant folio that takes two people to lift.”

The differences between Audubon’s early drawings and the drawings in “Birds of America” are clear, but nonetheless interesting. Both, for instance, capture the extinct passenger pigeon, but the former shows a static profile while the later drawing is true art, a moment caught in time as one bird feeds the other from above, its partner’s wings held out to the side just so.

Morris’ story of how these early drawings came to survive illustrates how important chance can be. Audubon tended to destroy old drawings of a particular species as he improved upon them, keeping only the best drawings for publication. “Audubon writes in his diary that he destroyed his earlier drawings, but the ones that came to Harvard weren’t destroyed because he sold drawings throughout his career in order to support his life work, ‘Birds of America.’”

In Audubon’s time, expensive books were financed by finding people to subscribe to them in advance of publication. In 1824 while trying to interest people in his work, Audobon found a particularly generous benefactor and friend in Edward Harris, an amateur naturalist from a well-to-do New Jersey family. Early on, Harris bought the entire lot of drawings from an exhibition that Audubon mounted in Philadelphia. Through the years, Harris continued to buy Audubon’s work, with Audubon also gifting his benefactor with additional drawings. Harris even accompanied Audubon on birding trips and at other times supplied him with bird skins from his own hunting.

After Harris’ death, his widow and son sold many of the drawings to Joseph Jeanes, of whom little is known. Jeanes did, however, have two sons who attended Harvard, and so bequeathed his Audubon collection to Harvard upon his death in 1928.

Morris and Edwards will speak more about the collection at the Sept. 18 lecture, which will be held in the Geological Lecture Hall of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St. Seven of the original drawings will be on display for this special occasion. The free lecture will be accompanied by a book signing, and books will be available on-site for purchase.