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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

John James Audubon

Not too far from where I live, in Marietta, Ohio, is published a monthly periodical, founded by a local couple, which is considered the premier source for the legions of amateur and professional ornithologist in this country. It's called The Bird Watcher's Digest. Today we take this rather refined, outdoorsy hobbyist for granted and sometimes even make jokes about them, but for those taken with the frolics and fortunes of our fine, feathered friends, the magazine is like their bible. They take their avocation very seriously.  Not surprisingly, their patron saint was an artist.      

The Ivcry-billed Woodpecker,
John James Audubon
I'm sure, when John James Audubon first undertook his groundbreaking travels trying to document visually in a bird encyclopedia, the fowl of his adopted fatherland, there must have been amateur bird watchers then as now. Without cameras and zoom lenses however, they were undoubtedly quite localized and disorganized. Audubon managed to remedy both these problems. What he brought to his effort was most of all patience, followed by intense curiosity, wanderlust, the ability to record acute observations, and a credible facility for handling watercolor. It was a rare mix, and generations of bird watchers for 150 years have been indebted to him.
Golden Eagle, 1833-34,
John James Audubon

Audubon was born in 1785 on the Caribbean Island of Haiti. As a teenager, he moved to Philadelphia to manage some family properties, which he was never very good at. He was 37 when he first decided to combine his two hobbies, birds and painting. For the next sixteen years he traveled from Florida to Labrador and west well into Texas waiting, watching, sketching, and ultimately painting. Fortunately, he'd had the foresight to solicit subscriptions amongst his bird-watching friends to support his ornithological vice.  He completed some 435 studies in detailed watercolors. His painted compositions were exciting and often lighthearted. Upon his return, he enlisted the help of London printmaker, Robert Havell, in using the aquatint process to reproduce his work. The larger areas of neutral colors were inked on the plates while the other colors were added by hand on the prints themselves. It was a costly process. In all, Audubon invested the then astronomical sum of $100,000 in the project. However, he was well rewarded for his work and financial risk. Between 1840 and 1844, 2000 sets of prints were sold at $1000 EACH.  Do the math.  

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