Every morning before daylight in my dimly lit study I stare into the eyes of a pensive raccoon. More exquisite in detail than any raccoon of the flesh, he is forever sleek and voluptuous of form, fingers spread as if poised to lunge from his framed prison and unleash some menace should I journey too close. Not as popular as his birds, this particular raccoon is from a later Audubon series The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. I adore all Audubon’s work, and particularly enjoy these quadrupeds with their darker countenances.
Audubon loved birds, he once explained,”I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life.” His second major book project after the now coveted The Birds of America–Quadrupeds was a collection of 150 folio drawings created with the help and collaboration of his son–half way through the project his health failed him and his son had to finish the book–covering a wide range of 4 legged creatures in North America.
Of the many peaceful depictions of deer, squirrels and other prey animals, the predators seem to get special treatment–even with their exquisite coats and claws–the artists verdict of crime and punishment is doled out and caught in the moment of retribution, and it is perhaps our sympathy for the more peaceful creatures that lends a menacing cast to these depictions.
Reportedly a kind man he once described himself, “My enemies have been few, and my friends numerous.” The famous ornithologist, naturalist, and painter was born in a French colony–what is now Haiti–on a sugarcane plantation in 1785. Although his father wanted him to be seaman, he was fond of wandering in the woods and would draw the natural curiosities that he collected. When found to be not fit for a life at sea and to avoid the wars in France, he traveled on a forged passport to the US where he settled at Mill Grove in Pennsylvania near Valley Forge.
The farm provided many opportunities to explore the outdoors, and it is here that he discovered a technique to pose and paint birds so that they looked more naturalistic than their modern counterparts that were painted from taxidermy.
One of his discoveries at Mill Grove was how to prepare specimens to paint. He would kill the birds using very fine shot and then use wires to prop them up in natural positions, in contrast to stuffing them and posing them rigidly. Also, despite the popularity of oils, Audubon worked in watercolor, sometimes adding pastels and gauche in multiple layers to achieve his effects. Another unique quality of his work was the use of dramatic compositions–he not only made the animals more lifelike, but he also utilized dynamic compositions to blur the line between scientific rendering and art. This made him somewhat controversial with other ornithologists as they saw these compositions as unscientific, but as an artistic choice it is one of the qualities that sets his work apart and makes the work so enduring.
While at Mill Grove, Audubon met and married the woman who he would share his life with–the daughter of neighboring farmer–Ms. Lucy Bakewell. They shared many interests and enjoyed walking together and observing the natural world.
His work on The Birds of America occupied much of his life. His goal was to paint every single species, and he attempted to complete one page each day. His travels took him far and wide, including traveling extensively in Texas. He hired hunters to send him specimens from far off places and had to rely on support from his wife and a wide range of various odd jobs to complete his opus.
When he finally completed the book, he first published it as a series in England between 1827-1838. The book measures 39 x 26 inches and is sometimes refereed to as the “Double Elephant Folio”. Audubon’s personal copy of the book is part of the collection at the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas–which in itself is worth the visit–but the museum also houses an amazing collection of artists from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, Charles Marion Russell, and Georgia O’Keeffe–as well as Steuben Glass and a complete set of porcelain birds by Dorothy Doughty which bring to mind Audubon paintings in three dimensions.
In his later life, his family moved to an estate on Manhattan island which they named “Minniesland” where he remained until his death. It was while living at Minniesland that Quadrupeds was published, and for many years the area of NYC was known as Audubon park. Today, all that remains is a monument to Audubon. His home, while efforts were made to restore it, one day just disappeared–it’s fate to the elements or to looters unknown.
Audubon will always be remembered for his birds, but I make a case to not forget his Quadrupeds. He has the ability to uplift the way we see some of the less popular members of the animal kingdom, showing beauty–even if combined with violence–in creatures with reputations of not being particularly beautiful. Looking into the eyes of my raccoon every shadowy morning, the details revealed in the print are seared in my mind and I will forever see those details in the fleeting forms of live creatures–noting the luxury of their fur and the glint of their eyes that Audubon has shown me in his work.