A Study of Nature: The Life and Legacy of John James Audubon

By+Bradley Vite

John James Audubon is the quintessential artist of wildlife. His pursuit and passion of American birds and animals was a lifelong adventure and one that places him in homes, institutions and museums for art aficionados to enjoy today. His efforts birthed many entities which thrive today. His hunger for exploration and rendering has influenced generation after generation. Audubon societies across America encourage bird watchers to monitor and count bird species in their areas in the spring. The Audubon Magazine is sent to thousands informing and educating the interested in conservation, habitat and our role today in enjoying and protecting the great gifts which delight in the sky and excite us in our woods, meadows and mountains.

How many times have we heard from a child or adult, “look at the deer” or gaze with wonderment at the magnificence of an American Bald Eagle? I actually encountered my first Bald Eagle on Day Lake Road this past summer driving to my lake cottage past a friend’s farm (Paul and Sharon Mrozek where they keep bees and have fresh honey available year round) on Memorial Day Weekend, very close to Paradise Lake. I was absolutely delighted that I had seen the symbol of our country and surely felt some of the excitement and energy that John James Audubon must have experienced on his many journeys in the woods. And there he would spend a great portion of his life, extracting a monumental enterprise, with a romantic imagination possibly inspired by writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was his closest contemporary counterpart in vision and distinctly native style.

Audubon has been the most revered American artist of nature for a century and a half. Sir Sacheverall Sitwell stated, “There is nothing in the world of fine books quite like the discovery of Audubon. The giant energy of the man, his power of achievement and accomplishment, give to him something of the epical force of a Walt Whitman or a Herman Melville—Audubon is the greatest of bird painters; he belongs to American history.”

Born in Santo Domingo (Haiti) and raised in France, John James Audubon was taken to France as a young child to escape the Haitian Insurrection, only to experience the upheavals of the French revolution. He came to the United States in 1803, the son of a marine captain and Creole mother and the amateur naturalist settled on the Mississippi frontier. Audubon experienced a series of business endeavors that didn’t turn out as expected. Already an avid bird-watcher, his pastime preoccupied him during his business failures. He made a decision by 1820 that would change his life and others by dedicating his energies and love in painting every species in North America. This was monumental. His contemporaries drawings and paintings were taken from prepared skins and zoo specimens as Audubon determined to complete his from direct observations in the wild, in their natural habitat with all of its richness, color and symphony. He became known as “The American Woodsman”. He experimented with many mediums—pencil, pastel, oil, gouache and ink working to achieve lifelike tones and textures. Pastel added to the soft texture of the feathered bodies and an iridescence was imparted with graphite. Ultimately, he favored watercolor which added to the wonderful detail and brilliant colors of his subjects. Quite ironically, watercolor is one of the most difficult mediums to paint and Audubon was essentially a self taught artist.

In his later, more mature works, Audubon would combine a whole range of techniques and mediums to render a single bird. Sometimes he would affix whole or parts of images in a creative collage. By 1821, Audubon surpassed naturalist Alexander Wilson, his principal rival with his mastery of angle, color, and action. For the first time birds were seen feeding, fighting, flying, not static and dull. Contrasting two drawings of the Carolina Parrot, Theodore Stebbins, Jr. states, “The later work shows the artist... at the height of his powers. There one feels Audubon celebrating the liveliness, beauty and abundance of these spectacular creatures as he pictures seven of them from every angle. The earlier bird is a specimen, albeit a handsome one; the later ones are noisy, living, three dimensional creatures.”

After completing his many watercolors and traversing many miles, Audubon was determined to make his work available through engraving and hand-coloring of his masterwork. He published several editions. The Birds of America (Havell Edition) was completed between 1826-1838. Audubon sold 175 subscriptions at a price of $1,000, the cost of a substantial home at the time. A total of 200 sets of Birds of America were completed. It is estimated more than 100 are in library and museum collections, including the National Museum of Art in Moscow, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Today a single plate from this edition can cost over $100,000. A quadraped edition was completed between 1845-1848 with a total of 150 drawings. It depicted the first ever attempt to document the mammals of North America. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, accompanied and assisted in this project. J.T. Bowen, an accomplished printmaker from Philadelphia, was chosen to complete the lithographs which were also hand colored. The Imperial Folio, as it is known, measures 22 by 28 inches and is the definitive 19th century work in the field of mammalogy.The Bien Edition, 1858-1860, or the American Edition of The Birds of America, occurred seven years after Audubon’s death due to the efforts of his sons. Because of the outbreak of the Civil war, this edition was suddenly halted and never completed, with only 150 plates finished, making it the scarcest of Audubon’s original editions and remains as the finest example of this medium ever produced. There were octavo or miniature sets of the birds and animals, which were completed between 1840-1871. Pricing is still quite affordable, starting at around $125.

To own an Audubon is to possess a piece of American History. And an opportunity to enjoy an unequalled aesthetic in the field of nature.

The demand for Audubon’s works continues to be strong. His stature and accomplishment continues to garner further academic study and appreciation. His images are breathtaking and major museum exhibits of his work have encouraged legions of followers in the study, painting, writing and appreciation of birds and animals.

The original 433 paintings of John James Audubon were sold by Lucy Audubon to the New York Historical Society for $4,000. Today the collection is considered priceless, with many of the paintings worth in excess of one million dollars. Audubon’s contribution to the field of art is enormous and his exploits have preserved for him a place of honor for all generations. A naturalist, entrepreneur, publisher and one of greatest artists of the 19th century, his legacy is one we can all enjoy and celebrate.

Audubon’s life was an odyssey of spectacular dimension and accomplishment. He literally and figuratively blazed new trails. We should take more time to explore the excellent resources available today in our parks, preserves and the great outdoors, sensing a bit of what Audubon must have experienced for so many years...  nature in all its splendor providing an awakening of spiritual connectiveness and tactile peace.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bradley Vite, Director of  Bradley Vite Fine Arts, specializes in works of art of 19th and 20th Century American; including John James Audubon, McKenney-Hall, Illustrators, Animation, Brown County, Southwest and Impressionists. Mr. Vite enjoys working with individual needs of collectors, corporations and museums.

Mr. Vite graduated from Hillsdale College with honors of inclusion to Omicron Delta Kappa, for leadership and scholarship and Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. He is active in a number of philanthropic and civic endeavors and has been recognized in the United Way All Star Hall of Fame. Mr. Vite’s concern for the environment and quality of life led to efforts in noise abatement that have been recognized internationally and nationally. Additionally, an award is given annually in Mr. Vite’s name in recognition of his many years of service to the Association for the Disabled of Elkhart County, more specificially Adec Ride-A-Bike, which he chaired for many years, the organization’s largest annual fundraiser.

Although enticed and encouraged to open a gallery on the magnificent mile in downtown Chicago, Mr. Vite decided to bring a fine arts gallery to Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan. Although clients have come as far as New York to California, Fine Arts is still not a household word here. But with more media attention detailing the activities in the art world, there are a growing number of collectors.

Mr. Vite is on the advisory board of the Midwest Museum of American Art and is a member of the American Historical Print Collectors Society. In addition to fine art, the gallery offers appraisals and custom framing.

Bradley Vite Fine Arts
Beardsley Crossing
1600 West Beardsley Ave.
Elkhart, IN 46514
574-293-1616