Audubon in American Art
By Ron Tyler
Author, “Audubon’s Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of The Birds of America.”
Audubon Galleries Advisory Board Member
Despite his enormous accomplishments, his popularity, and the fact that more has been written on him than on most American artists, Audubon is seldom considered in the context of his painterly contemporaries and has never been properly recognized as one of the great American Romantic artists. His followers generally emphasize his tremendous accomplishments and the scientific aspects of his bird and animal portraits. They claim aesthetic merit for his paintings, but ultimately see them as natural history rather than fine art. His detractors pay even less attention, choosing to emphasize his lack of formal training in both science and art. As the artist George Catlin observed, Audubon’s “works would seem to hold a rank between living nature and art.” In fact, his paintings combine elements of contemporary portrait, genre, and landscape painting that any Romantic would have recognized, and his writings elaborate upon and deepen that context.
By the time of his second return visit to America in 1831, with many of the double elephant folio engravings published and the first volume of the Ornithological Biography in print, Audubon was a well-known and popular figure. His huge aquatint engravings were well reviewed in Blackwood’s Magazine, The Literary Gazette, and Silliman’s – “the Papers here have blown me up sky high,” he wrote Lucy – the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia subscribed to his book, and he was invited to membership in the learned societies in this country and Great Britain. He exhibited his paintings and prints in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic and visited with artists and collectors, journalists and naturalists, congressmen and senators, and presidents and heads of state. He was the sort of celebrity whose comings and goings were noted by the press. But when success came his way, albeit by the end of his brilliant career, he had friends in both worlds.
Perhaps the main reason Audubon received so little attention from the art critics and the art establishment is that they saw him as a natural history illustrator. Almost everyone admitted the spontaneity, creativity, and liveliness of his paintings, but in the end, he was a self-trained artist-naturalist whose work most critics saw as being entirely outside the academic tradition. They did not think of him in the same context with Doughty, Cole, Durand, Allston, Mount, or other contemporaries. Painter and historian William Dunlap thought Audubon a significant enough figure to include in his History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States in 1834 but reported in detail his rejection by the natural history community in Philadelphia. Also, art historian Henry Tuckerman, whose biographical sketch of Audubon appeared shortly after the artist’s death, recognized that his “career as an ornithologist began and was prosecuted with an artistic rather than a scientific enthusiasm” and that “the popular basis of Audubon’s renown, as well as the individuality of his taste as a naturalist, rests upon artistic merit.” However, when it came time to summarize his research into the artist’s life a decade and a half later, Tuckerman reduced his account of Audubon to less than a paragraph, with no analysis of his work or suggestion of its lasting qualities.
Others have suggested that Audubon might be little celebrated as an artist because he never became proficient at oil painting, the preferred medium of fine artists and collectors. He attempted oil paintings on occasion and produced a number of them to exhibit and sell in Britain, but he never invested the time and effort necessary to master the technique, ultimately only dabbling with it. Instead, he engaged the youthful Joseph Kidd to copy his watercolors in the more permanent format. He himself was much more at home with watercolors and used them throughout his life.
It also might be said that Audubon’s residence in England during production of the double elephant folio kept him from identifying with or becoming a part of the generation of artists that developed into America’s first native school of painting, the Hudson River School. Audubon had departed for England in 1826, shortly after landscapist Thomas Cole, the acknowledged inspiration of the school, made his first sketching trip up the Hudson; and Audubon had been in England for the better part of ten years by the time Cole painted his masterpiece, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow) (1836, oil on canvas, 51 by 76 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The naturalist did not move back to this country until 1839, by which time the most creative part of his work was finished, and the second generation of the Hudson River School was well established.
Audubon fares little better with art historians today. Barbara Novak, for example, mentions him only in comparing his interest in birds to Martin Johnson Heade’s fascination with hummingbirds. James Thomas Flexner compares him passingly to Catlin, and Milton W. Brown and Oliver W. Larkin do no better. John Wilmerding is one of the few art historians to mention him in his own right, observing that “he is usually set apart from the mainstream of American painting,” but that “something…raises his work from a level of technical ornithological illustration to one of aesthetic quality.”
Although the relationship between art and science was closer than one might think during Audubon’s life, few of Audubon’s contemporaries understood that his careful depictions of birds and their environments in the early 1820s placed him in the forefront of the coming generation of American Romantic painters. They believed, with Emerson and Thoreau, that art and science were but different facets of the same edifice, and that nature, when carefully reproduced, held the keys to understanding the Creator’s mystery. Audubon’s thoroughgoing Romanticism would surprise no one who had studied his prints or read his essays. Even his personal extravagances and individualism marked him as a Romantic – before his paintings were known. For instance, he preferred secluding himself in the forest, observing and drawing his birds, to managing the family farm at Mill Grove or minding the store in Henderson and finally had only his art left as a possible living for his family. He was roaming the wildernesses of the Old Northwest and the Mississippi River valley a full decade before George Catlin embarked upon his Romantic quest of the exotic and noble savages of the upper Missouri River. The fact that Audubon, while in a destitute state, conceived of a giant publication that would encompass all the birds of America, reproduced life-size, costing more than $115,000 to produce, and selling for $1,000 per copy, was the perfect expression of a heroic ego in a heroic age.
His quest was genuine, however. Convinced that the birds of America had never been adequately cataloged or depicted, he was equally certain that he was the person for the job. Along with other naturalists of the era, Audubon felt that each time he discovered, illustrated, described, and shared knowledge of each new species of bird, he was helping piece together the “Great Chain of Being,” link by link, just as Nuttall, Lesueur, Catlin, and the other explorer-artists were doing for the plants, animals, and aboriginal inhabitants of the American continent.
His inclinations are evident throughout his writings in the fantastic, descriptive, and sensual language of the Romantic, which he employed. His father inspired him to study birds, he explained in the first volume of the Ornithological Biography, “and to raise my mind towards their great Creator.” On another occasion, he recalled that, “I marveled at Nature as the dawn presented her – in richest, purest array – before her Creator….Again I was full of desire to comprehend all I saw!” Ever alert to nature as he traveled throughout the country, he heard the “rumbling sound” of water and the “loud and strange noise” of Indian warfare. He saw the “rich and glowing hue” of the sun, “lofty hills,” and “extensive plains,” the “dismal clouds” and “awful phenomena” of a hurricane. He found a “wild and solitary spot” in the forest, and on the coast, he frequently enjoyed the “grandeur and beauty of those almost uninhabited shores.”
It is a cliché to say that Romantic art replaced the eighteenth century’s objective view of the world with a subjective one, but as with most clichés, there is some truth in it. In Audubon’s case, his paintings of birds appeared to be especially objective, particularly when one reads the accompanying text and realizes that, even in the most animated and violent images, he has depicted an important characteristic or defining moment of even so modest a bird as the tufted titmouse (Havell 39), curled over a small pine seed to crack it with his beak; or the twisted, stretching posture of the wood thrush (Havell 73) reaching for a berry. Audubon is, perhaps, at his best in the figures of the lesser terns (Havell 319), which, unlike most of his birds, lack the perspective that a habitat or landscape would have provided. Set against a dark void broken only by the clouds, the terns sail gracefully through the changing wind currents, a depiction that enhances their elegant form and flight. “Nothing can exceed the lightness of the flight of this bird,” Audubon emphasized. “They move with swiftness at times, at others, balance themselves like hawks…then dart with…velocity.” He suggests these movements with what might seem to some awkwardly posed birds, with their wings pointing up at sharp angles. But the angles are echoed in the clouds, which, as a result, seem to be a more inviting and natural setting for the terns.
Even so, Audubon anticipated criticism and wrote in 1831: “The positions may, perhaps, in some instances appear outré; but such supposed exaggerations can afford subject of criticism only to persons unacquainted with the feathered tribes; for, believe me, nothing can be more transient or varied than the attitudes or positions of birds.”
A close examination of the pictures, though, also clearly reveals Audubon’s pervasive and subjective hand. A significant tenet of Romantic theory holds that the artificial barriers separating one part of nature from another should be broken down. A Romantic artist might accomplish this by painting a picture that is not complete within the frame; a detail of a larger image, perhaps – a landscape or a painting in which the main character might be gazing outside the frame – to suggest that some important element of the narrative is taking place outside the picture, in the larger world. Book illustrations became popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in part because the development of wood engraving made it possible to print the images and the text at the same time and on the same page, with only one pass through the press. To the Romantics this meant that the barrier between text and illustration, between two art forms, had been cleared, and the resulting vignettes, which fade out at the edges to suggest that they are fragments of a larger world, are perfect expressions of Romantic sentiment. The vignettes are not complete, as might be suggested if they were framed or contained by a line. Thomas Bewick, whom Audubon greatly admired, gave the Romantic vignette its earliest and best expression, but Audubon’s own small prints, especially the ones with the detailed habitats that fade out toward the edges, are equally good examples.
Another aspect of that philosophy was based on the fundamental concept, as Emerson explained, that “behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present.” To him natural science broke down the barriers in nature, between people and animals, and showed the human to be a part of the “Great Chain of Being,” a part of the universe, “with a ray of relation passing from him to every created thing.” Emerson’s contemporary Henry David Thoreau, perhaps of all the Romantic writers, felt the relationship applied especially to birds and observed, for example, that the great horned owl was a native of America long before the Anglos arrived, that the great blue heron “belongs to a different race from myself….[but] I am glad to recognize him for a native of America, – why not an American citizen.” Thoreau even tried to share the birds’ perspective. “I found myself suddenly neighbour to the birds,” he wrote of his experience at Walden, “not by having imprisoned one, but by having caged myself near them.”
Audubon painted much as Thoreau thought and wrote. He, too, broke down the barriers between humans and animals. He painted birds at eye level like earlier naturalists. But, unlike his predecessors, who painted them standing on the ground or perched on a branch, he painted them in genre scenes that invite the viewer to share the often moral stories or dilemmas depicted. What William Sidney Mount did for the Yankee, Charles Deas did for the frontiersman, and George Caleb Bingham did for the Missouri riverman, Audubon did for birds. Audubon’s subscribers probably were not surprised to find themselves face to face with the wide-eyed and life-size Wild Turkey (Havell 1), startling and colorful as he may be, when they opened the first number of the double elephant folio, but they were surely shocked to find themselves confronting a ferocious peregrine falcon, in the process of devouring, along with his mate, the remains of a Green-Winged Teal (Plate 60). In later plates, Audubon took viewers into the tangles in the jessamine vine, beside a rattlesnake as he attacked a family of mockingbirds, and hundreds of feet above the ground soaring with the Golden Eagle (Havell 181) and Osprey (Havell 81).
Audubon further broke down the barrier between people and nature by ascribing human expressions, feelings, and moral dramas to certain species. The female cormorant (Havell 266) personifies maternal love as she “gently caresses each [offspring] alternately with her bill.” The blue jay (Plate 61) betrays his antisocial nature in one of Audubon’s most beautiful compositions, a “rogue…sucking eggs which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent Dove,” and the brown thrashers (Havell 116) exhibit righteous indignation in defending their nest from an invading blacksnake. He described the peregrine falcons (Original Painting 315, Havell 16, Bowen 20) as having “bloody rage at their beaks’ ends, and…cruel delight in the glance of their daring eyes.” Several other birds seem to have particularly violent and startled or angry expressions, such as the Mocking Bird (Havell 21), the Virginian Partridge (Havell 76), and the Common Buzzard (Havell 372). These messages Audubon’s viewers and readers accepted as faithful and accurate communication from nature itself, through the naturalist’s writings and paintings.
Some critics have been so impressed by Audubon’s views of atavistic and violent creatures that they have suggested these images were precursors of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest; more likely they were simply the result of close observation of nature over many years, seen through his Romantic lens. Others have criticized the unnatural attitudes of a number of his birds, such as the Brasilian Caracara Eagle (Havell 161) and the Hudsonian Godwit (Havell 258). They might not have considered that Audubon designed the poses for particular purposes. The back and front views of the caracara, for example, permit all the feathers to be seen, and the awkward spread of the godwit’s wing allows Audubon to show the black color of the inner wing, thus distinguishing it from the black-tailed godwit of Europe.
One of Audubon’s best portraits is the bald eagle (Havell 11). Thinking that the immature specimen was a new species, he named it the “Bird of Washington” in honor of the first president of the nation and rendered a portrait as proud and complex as Gilbert Stuart or the Peales had ever painted. He explained:
“The name which I have chosen…may, by some, be considered as preposterous and unfit, but as it is indisputably the noblest bird of its genus that has yet been discovered in the United States, I trust I shall be allowed to honour it with the name of one yet nobler, who was the saviour of his country, and whose name will ever be dear to it….He had a nobility of mind, and a generosity of soul, such as are seldom possessed. He was brave, so is the Eagle; like it, too, he was the terror of his foes; and his fame, extending from pole to pole, resembles the majestic soarings of the mightiest of the feathered tribe. If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her great Eagle.”
Audubon had discovered his error by the time he wrote the Ornithological Biography and corrected the mistake, but the proud portrait remains, honoring the bird and the man.
Although Audubon would have hated it, he is often compared with Catlin, whose Romantic portraits of Indians along the upper Missouri were rendered with a limited but colorful and dramatic palette. Both artists added to the scientific knowledge of the continent with lengthy expeditions into the wilderness that resulted in graphic and exotic portraits of unknown tribes. “We are proud of such men as Audubon and Catlin,” James Hall wrote in Cincinnati’s Western Monthly Magazine, “of native artists who are diffusing accurate knowledge of natural objects, in the land of their birth, by means of the elegant creations of the pencil.” Catlin’s Four Bears, Second Chief, in Full Dress (1832, oil on canvas, 29 by 24 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) is as proud as Audubon’s bald eagle, but an equally revealing comparison is his masterful depiction of Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe (Plate 63) with Audubon’s Ruffed Grouse (Plate 64), among others. Both subjects display colorful and exotic decoration, finery from the heart of the wilderness for the Romantic to savor.
The most famous examples of Romantic painting, however, are not genre or portrait painting but landscape. Romantic landscape painting grew out of a Rousseauean desire to glean spirituality from realistic depictions of nature – based on the belief that accurate depictions would reveal the greater truths of the Creator. The German artist Caspar David Friedrich may well have set the pace for Romantic landscapes in Europe; in American it was Thomas Cole. Employing the conventions of the picturesque and the sublime that had been well worked out in England and Europe, Cole reached a growing audience in America with canvases of native scenery studded with Romantic symbols, and he is credited with establishing America’s first native artistic school, the Hudson River School. But Audubon had been painting idealized American landscapes as a part of the process of documenting birds for several years by the time Cole made his first sketching trip up the Hudson River. The American Avocet (Havell 318) and the Spotted Sandpiper (Havell 310), both painted in 1821, contain superb examples of Louisiana landscape, and the tall coastal grass, in which the Sharp-Tailed Sparrow has built his nest (Havell 149) is even reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer’s The Great Piece of Turf (1503, watercolor and gouache on paper, Albertina, Vienna). But his best habitats and landscapes were obtained later, with the assistance of Joseph Mason and George Lehman: the Black-Billed Cuckoo (Havell 32), the Ruffed Grouse (Havell 41), the Snowy Heron (Havell 242), and the Roseate Spoonbill (Havell 321), among many others.
Audubon had planned for these painstaking and beautiful backgrounds to be a part of his bird paintings from the beginning, and they are a significant part of his Romantic as well as his scientific vision. He had taken young Mason down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1820 and worked with the lad until he rendered extraordinary flowers, leaves, and branches for the habitats. The depiction of the large white flower and deep green leaves of the magnolia tree in the Black-Billed Cuckoo (Havell 32) is perhaps Mason’s best, but the habitats in the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo (Havell 2), the Purple Grackle (Havell 24), and the Mourning Dove (Plate 65) are similarly impressive. This was not the first time subjects had been pictured in their natural habitat. Catesby had used habitats in his bird plates, Bartram in his images of American plants, with compositional elements to unite them with their environments. Lawson employed some simple landscapes behind some of Alexander Wilson’s birds, and Charles Willson Peale exhibited his bird and animal specimens in their natural settings in his museum. However, the combination of habitats and birds is unlike those of any predecessor, and Audubon’s intent is clear, not only from his paintings, but also from instructions that he passed along to his son shortly after he arrived in England. “Branches of Trees and Flowers I particularly wish him to do the size of nature and as closely as his talents will permit,” he wrote Mrs. Audubon.
Nor had any before Audubon composed such picturesque landscapes that cataloged the various regions of the new continent almost as thoroughly as he did its birds. He kept careful notes on Mason’s and his own backgrounds and included information in the descriptions of his subjects. Upon his return to America in 1829, he employed George Lehman, a professional landscape painter, to furnish larger landscapes and cityscapes that are today among his most desirable prints: the Long-Billed Curlew (Havell 231) in Charleston harbor and the Canvasback (Havell 301) in Baltimore harbor, the American Snipe (Havell 243) and Snowy Heron (Havell 242) with views of South Carolina plantations in the background, and the Louisiana Heron (Plate 62) and the Roseate Spoonbill (Havell 321), with the marshes of the Florida Keys as the backdrop. So thoroughly schooled in their father’s technique were Victor and John that when they began thinking of adding birds to the octavo edition in the early 1850s, it never occurred to them that they could improvise; they knew that it would take months to obtain the habitat information that would be required in the new illustrations. Where Thomas Cole’s picturesque landscapes boosted American pride and awareness with sublime wildernesses and wild and exotic scenery, Audubon provided idealized but characteristic depictions of the countryside from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River.
Just as Catlin’s Indian portraits were “a literal and graphic delineation of…an interesting race of people, who are rapidly passing away from the face of the earth,” Audubon might have intended some of his landscapes as memorials to scenes that he feared would vanish “before the encroachments of the white man.” Recalling the Ohio River as he had seen it a decade before, when he had first navigated its waters, he wrote: “When I think of these times, and call back to my mind the grandeur and beauty of those almost uninhabited shores…when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality.” “Nature herself seems perishing,” he wrote from Labrador in 1833.
“Whether these changes are for the better or the worse, I shall not pretend to say,” Audubon continued, but…I feel with regret that there are on record no satisfactory accounts of the state of that portion of the country, from the time when our people first settled it….However, it is not too late yet; and I sincerely hope that either or both [Cooper and Irving]…will ere long furnish the generations to come with those delightful descriptions which they are so well qualified to give, or the original state of a country that has been so rapidly forced to change her form and attire under the influence of increasing population.”
Not all of Audubon’s landscapes were as carefully researched and depicted as these, of course. In two notable examples, the goshawk (Havell 141) and the black-throated guillemot (Havell 402), Audubon asked Havell to fill in the landscape backgrounds. The Arctic scene that Havell supplied for the guillemot is pleasing enough, although rather surreal, but Havell confused the perspective in the background for the goshawk, making one of the worst plates in the entire double elephant folio. Havell also provided backgrounds for the western duck (Havell 429), the white-legged oyster-catcher (Havell 427), and the plumed partridge (Havell 423), among others.
While these big and stunningly depicted birds with handsome landscapes in the background could be enjoyed purely for their picturesque qualities – qualities that are pleasing to the eye but that may, through a series of associations such as Audubon’s, inspire one to loftier thoughts – his subscribers and admirers understood the deeper message. In Dr. George Parkman’s copy of the Ornithological Biography, for example, near Audubon’s description of a settler in the wilderness, “on his knees, with clasped hands, and face inclined upwards…,” a reader had noted a reference to William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “A Forest Hymn,” the first line of which begins, “The groves were God’s first temples.” George C. Shattuck, Sr., of Boston wrote Audubon to thank him for his “enterprise towards the manifestation of his [God’s] creative powers,” and his niece expressed her esteem for him as the “interpreter of nature.” The editor of the Saturday Courier credited him with being a practitioner of the “elevating and soul-lifting Science of Natural History,” while an Albion scribe concluded that, “Instruction in Natural History is here so happily blended with entertainment, that the perusal of its subject matter affords a delightful, and at the same time profitable pastime.”
Sensitive critics also immediately realized the impact of Audubon’s work. French critic Philarète-Chasles asked his readers to “imagine a landscape wholly American, trees, flowers, grass, even the tints of the sky and the waters, quickened with a life that is real, peculiar, trans-Atlantic. On the twigs, branches, bits of shore, copied by the brush with the strictest fidelity, sport the feathered races of the New World, in the size of life, each in its particular attitude….It is a real and palpable vision of the New World, with its atmosphere, its imposing vegetation, and its tribes which know not the yoke of man.” Nevertheless, Charles Winterfield was one of the few American critics to see anything other than facts in his paintings:
“Shall we remind you that Audubon has elevated illustrative Ornithology from a state little short of a crude and unrecognized position as a feature, – along with “Cock Robin,” and “Robinson Crusoe” epitomized – of the unmeaning toy-books of children, into the highest rank of Art which has striven truthfully to exhibit nature? Shall we remind you that in addition to having fixed it upon the profound basis of science as an illustrator, he has, as an accurate observer, carried its definition out of sight above predecessors or contemporaries, into the atmosphere of natural and practical philosophy – elaborating the delineations of sex, age, seasons and climate, into a precision and reality which must constitute the firm ground-work of future investigations? – in a word, that he has created, through Ornithology the most alluring feature yet presented of that cheerful and broad philosophy which leads “through nature up to nature’s God”? If you do not know all this, learn more of Audubon through his own works, and you will recognize it. We must defer to another more familiar and pleasing intercourse with the man as well as naturalist, and with the wild natural scenes, which are the back-ground of his subjects.”
Audubon personified the American hunter-naturalist, heir to Daniel Boone and interpreter of America’s natural paradise, for generations. After successfully presenting himself as the “American woodsman” in Europe, he continued the role at home. While in Philadelphia in November 1843, he “attracted general observation” on Chestnut Street, “clothed in a white blanket hunting coat and undressed otter skin cap; his ‘beard was grizzled,’ and, with his moustache, had been suffered to grow very long. On his shoulder, Natty-Bumpo-fashion, he carried his rifle, in a deer-skin cover.” Through his writings and paintings, primarily the octavo edition of the Birds, many Americans vicariously shared his experiences in the wilderness. Congressman R. Barnwell Rhett, a subscriber who lived in Charleston, wrote Audubon in 1841 that “Mrs. Rhett takes great interest in your labours, and often describes to my little Boys, in glowing terms, taken from your works, the toils and the pleasure – the labours and the glory of being a great and enthusiastic Naturalist like Mr. Audubon.” In The Hunter-Naturalist, author Charles W. Webber compared him to Boone. Both were “something of the Primitive Hunter and modern Field-Naturalist combined,” he wrote. And Webber’s might not have been the first such comparison. John G. Chapman’s engraving of Boone, published in Family Magazine in 1836, was probably the inspiration for the handsome portrait that Audubon’s sons painted of their father, seated on a rock and holding his rifle. His horse waits patiently at his right, while his hunting dog rests at his feet.
The year before his death, Audubon received an even greater honor at the hands of the famous daguerreotypist Mathew Brady, who included him in his Gallery of Illustrious Americans (New York, 1850). Audubon was already an object of veneration, the focal point of much of the abstract admiration that Americans felt for Romantic values. Now lithographer Francis D’Avignon’s copy of Brady’s photograph portrait of Audubon (Plate 67) made his likeness widely available, a visible symbol of powerful and even more widely held beliefs.
The Birds of America is an accomplishment whose stature grows year by year. The Havell edition was simply one of the greatest books ever produced. Audubon reached his greatest audience, however, with the royal octavo edition, and it might well have been the medium by which the Romantic message reached its greatest public in America. “Audubon’s Birds of America, and Audubon’s Quadrupeds of America, will be great National Works, which will live to glorify his talents and perseverance so long as a love of Natural history shall endure,” predicted the Saturday Courier. “It is folly to suppose that most of the people of the United States have not heard of this great contribution to the Literature, the Science and the Arts of America.” While some of Audubon’s peers recognized his talent and subscribed to the miniature edition, later artists specifically credited his aesthetic genius. A writer in the New York Times suggested that Winslow Homer’s painting of Wild Geese was “worthy of Audubon,” while Homer himself, one of the greatest of America’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists, paid tribute to the naturalist with Right and Left (1909, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art), a dramatic composition of ducks that have just been shot, quite similar to Audubon’s Golden-Eye Duck (Havell 342). Charles Birchfield, Marsden Hartley, and Ellsworth Kelly are only three among the many twentieth-century artists who were impressed with the more formal qualities of Audubon’s work, which convinced Hartley that “a painting of life in the natural world may also be a work of art, and lose none of its scientific veracity.”
Audubon’s science has long since been surpassed, but his form-shattering vision has had an enormous impact, and his dramatically rendered birds continue to resonate today. His was the romantic heart of American scientific observation, striving for objectivity but so freighted with moral beliefs and purposes that distortion unknowingly intervened. The eminent English critic Sacheverell Sitwell concluded that, “The ‘American Woodsman’ may be, with his limitations, the most considerable painter that the American continent, North and South, has yet produced.” Yet even Sitwell probably did not realize how completely Audubon united unbridled artistic ability and the emerging American identity with nature during this formative period. Unlike the other Romantic artists, such as Allston, Cole, and Mount, who adapted classical myths and in some cases, derivative European artistic traditions to American situations and styles, Audubon brought out of the American wilderness, using American birds and their natural habitats, a completely new expression of American Romanticism. This expression came virtually at the last possible moment before natural history professionals burned toward more dispassionate and objective observation in their quest for the new science.