Blitz Magazine, January 1999
Consider the auk;
Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly,
And could only walk.
Who may well become extinct
Because he forgot how to walk
And learned how to fly
Before he thinked.
When we see a guy shooting birds out of the air, we say “That jerk’s needlessly killing wildlife to compensate for a lack of, er, something else.”
Two hundred years ago, people probably didn’t think that way, but they did note that James Audubon’s favourite hobby was shooting birds — hundreds at a time. He’d then select attractive corpses, wire them into life-like poses and paint pictures of them. People called him a ‘romantic figure’, likely not imagining that he would become history’s greatest wildlife painter.
He was born Jean-Jacques Audubon, the bastard son of a French naval officer. In 1812, he dodged the Napoleonic draft and headed to the US, where he posed as the son of a Louisiana plantation owner. He blew all his wife’s money, did time in debtors’ prison and was running a Kentucky grocery store when he saw the work of nature artist Alexander Wilson. Audubon realized that his life-long habit of sketching wildlife produced far superior results.
Off he went to paint birds, walking 50,000 North American miles. Along the way, he identified 35 new species and sub-species and revolutionized the way his world saw and portrayed nature. He respected birds as predators and gave them personality and character. While others had shown birds in life-like poses, or in their environmental context, or in their true sizes, he was the first to combine all elements. Although he was entirely self-taught, his work is highly-stylized and textured and exhibits the realism, scientific accuracy and artistic merit of a technically-disciplined painter.
After completing 453 paintings, Audubon headed to Scotland in search of cash and production capabilities. In Edinburgh, then London, his work was engraved, printed and completed, by hand, with watercolours. It took 12 years but, in 1844, the 29” x 39” Birds of America became one of the greatest illustrated book of all time.
Ever the hopeless entrepreneur, Audubon only sold 200 copies. But he created a huge market for wildlife art and, while he dressed up in buckskin to lecture at such august institutions as the University of Edinburgh (where Charles Darwin was in the audience), other people pirated his work and profited handsomely. The 11th Mayor of Toronto, however, bought an original, and it remains in the Toronto Reference Library. It includes the result of Audubon’s Canadian travels, the 100-plate Birds of Canada collection, and it can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 24th.
Even if you’re not a bird lover, the exhibit is worth a look. Audubon left us a record of the New World as it was before humans got hold of it. In his time, there were 5 billion passenger pigeons and he recorded a flock so large that it took three days to pass. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. He reported a two-month period in which a Halifax man sold 400,000 auk eggs (at .25/doz.). The last auk died in Iceland in 1844; now, there are more Audubon auk prints than there are auk museum specimens.
Humans hunted four Audubon subjects to extinction — there was also the Eskimo Curlew and the Labrador Duck. Some of his other subjects are now endangered, including the Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, Harlequin Duck and Northern Bobwhite. So this may be your only chance to see what those birds look like. And the next time you see some guy using his shotgun to commune with nature, ask him if he can spell ‘Viagra’.