Syracuse University Magazine

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Barn Owl by John James Audubon; courtesy of SU Special Collections Research Center



Drawn to Birds

John James Audubon (1785-1851) gave the world a wonderful gift when he produced The Birds of America, his masterful collection of 435 paintings of life-size avian species. But reaching that achievement required years of grueling work and sacrifice that took the woodsman artist from the saltwater flats of Key West to the Dakota plains and across the Atlantic to London, where he finally found an engraver willing to carry out his vision. “I undertook long and tedious journeys, ransacked the woods, the lakes, the prairies, and the shores of the Atlantic,” Audubon wrote in his introduction to Ornithological Biography (1831-49), a five-volume textual companion to The Birds of America. “Years were spent away from my family. Yet, reader, will you believe it, I had no other object in view than simply to enjoy the sight of nature.”

Audubon, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner, was born on the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and spent time in France before arriving at the family-owned estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, in 1803. His fascination with nature and his “aerial companions” began at an early age—he credits his father with introducing him to the idea of drawing birds. Despite his love for birds, Audubon, an expert marksman, forever wrestled with the paradox that he had to shoot them to collect them and create accurate portraits. This commitment to producing precise representations also fueled his desire to publish the images as life-sized. At Audubon’s request, many of the paintings’ backgrounds—some of which feature cityscapes (Charleston and Baltimore among them) and frontier homesteads—were created by fellow artists, including Robert Havell Jr. He was the namesake son of the London printer who agreed to engrave the artwork on copper plates and print the images—which were water-colored by hand—on the largest paper size available (26 x 38 inches), known as “double elephant” folio size. “It was a crazy idea if there ever was one,” says Christoph Irmscher, an Audubon biographer and professor of English at Indiana University.

Irmscher presented a lecture on Audubon this fall at Bird Library in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition John James Audubon and the American Landscape, which runs through January 24 at the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). The exhibition, curated by the SCRC’s Sean Quimby and Will LaMoy, highlights seven prints from the University’s complete original set of The Birds of America, one of approximately 120 known to exist and that have fetched more than $10 million at auction. Audubon sold the prints through a subscription series between 1826 and 1838. One of those sets belonged to former Syracuse mayor and University Trustee James J. Belden, who donated it to SU in 1896. “Without question, the Syracuse University community is fortunate to have this masterpiece of printing history at its fingertips,” says Quimby, senior director of special collections. “Our exhibition and public program with Professor Irmscher, the leading Audubon scholar, show that Birds of America is more than a point of pride for the University; it is a source of critical engagement for our faculty, staff, and students, and the surrounding community.”

One look at the prints—long-billed curlew, canvasback duck, glossy ibis, goosander (common merganser), barn owl, Swainson’s hawk, and white egret—and the viewer can see how meticulous Audubon was in depicting every detail, feather by feather. “Should you discover any merit in them, happy would the expression of your approbation render me, for I should feel that I had not spent my life in vain,” the legendary wildlife artist wrote. —Jay Cox