[00:00.00]Listen to part of a lecture in an art history class.[00:03.17] The professor has been discussing illustrated books.
[00:07.00]Professor:I want to take a look one particular book to give you an idea about what was involved in publishing illustrated books in the 1800s.[00:15.00]The book’s called The Birds of the America and the illustrator was John James Audubon.
[00:21.00]So,The Birds of the America, four volumes which contained illustrations of nearly every bird in the United States, over 400 birds, all hand-colored, all painted life-sized, the largest birds painted on the largest printing paper available at that time.[00:40.00]This required a lot of dedication. [00:42.77]And Audubon is best remembered as an incredibly meticulous accurate artist, a very accomplished illustrator of the natural world.
[00:51.00]And while there were other artists working on the similar project at the same time, Audubon’s book remains the most well-known and successful of its kind. [01:00.90]But, let’s talk a bit about Audubon himself first.
[01:05.00]First of all, Audubon was not a traditional painter.[01:10.00]And by this I mean that he didn’t work in oils.[01:12.90] He preferred to use water color and pastel crayons.[01:16.13]And he worked on paper instead of on canvas.[01:19.66]The thing is, Audubon considered the illustrations in his book, not the original water colors, to be his finished product.[01:28.30]His water colors were merely preparatory studies, most of which were painted while he was observing birds in the wild.[01:35.00] These water colors were then sent to his printer who created the final prints for the book.[01:40.30] And Audubon was so concerned with accuracy that he often scribbled notes to the printer around the edges of these original water colors.
[01:48.80]In fact, you might question whether producing a work of art was even Audubon’s goal. [01:54.00]Now, when I look at Audubon’s illustrations, I see a work of art. [01:59.00]But, it may make more sense to consider Audubon, first and foremost, as a naturalist, as a scientist. [02:06.50]See, the early 19th century when Audubon was painting was a time of major scientific inquiry. [02:12.86]And an essential way of spreading scientific knowledge was through those illustrated books.
[02:19.00]Student:So what did Audubon consider himself? An artist or a scientist?
[02:24.72]Professor:I’m not sure the distinction between the two was all that clear in the 1800s. [02:29.60]I think we can accurately state that the driving force in his art was getting the science right. [02:36.55]And this was perhaps a point that critics of his art work at that time just didn’t appreciate.
[02:41.80]Audubon also study birds in ways that didn’t directly inform his art. [02:47.30]Ah, you know what bird banding is right? [02:50.00]A bird has a band attached to its foot so we can learn about things like migration patterns. [02:55.30]Well, the first recorded instance of anyone doing that, it was Audubon. [03:00.30]Another example, a common belief of that time was that vultures used their sense of smell to find food. [03:07.00]Audubon didn’t believe that. [03:08.71]So, he tested it. [03:10.06]He put a large painting of a dead sheep in a field, and sure enough, vultures found it and started pecking at it.
[03:18.00]Now, Audubon’s work was very accurate, and we know this because we can compare his illustrations to the birds around us. [03:26.30]But sometimes it’s not possible to check. [03:29.30]There are actually several birds in his book that no one’s ever seen. [03:33.30]These are sometimes called Audubon’s mystery birds, because even though he drew them, there is no evidence that they exist in the wild.
[03:42.00]For someone who’s respected as a naturalist, isn’t it strange to think that he drew some birds that don’t appear to be real? [03:50.30]For example, there is an illustration that appears to be a type of warbler, a small bird. [03:56.00]It has a white ring around its eyes and white bars on its wings. [03:59.90]No one’s ever seen a warbler like this, so some people wonder if Audubon maybe forgot certain details about this bird when he painted it, or that he copied another artist’s work. [04:10.90]But considering that Audubon was such a meticulous artist, well, that might be a better answer.
[04:18.10]Hybridization is something that’s well-known in birds. [04:22.20]And it definitely explains the rather unique-looking duck Audubon painted. [04:27.00]He himself suggested that maybe it wasn’t an unknown species but a hybrid, born from two different species. [04:34.00]Since then, this particular crossing species has actually been recorded, both in the wild and in captivity. [04:41.10]So it turns out that Audubon was right.[04:43.39] And this duck actually was a hybrid.