I vividly remember the day I first saw a raven in the wild. A raven can’t be compared to a hawk, because it doesn’t have a hooked beak or talons—it is better described as a menacing, regal, eagle-sized crow. Ravens are strange and otherworldly. John James Audubon’s raven portrait, one of many prints on temporary display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History until July, perfectly replicates this bizarre majesty. Audubon wasn’t purely an artist, or purely a scientist: he combined the two disciplines in fascinating ways.
At the centerpiece of the Peabody exhibit are two books on loan from the Beinecke: rare early prints of The Birds of America, Audubon’s masterwork. In fact, Yale’s copy is one of only 110 intact sets that remain. The book, published in four huge volumes (it’s called the “elephant” folio because seemingly no other adjective could conceive of its gigantic size) is a testament to Audubon’s limitless passion, bordering on obsession. The Birds of America contains 1,055 life-sized illustrations of birds—including every species known to exist in America, plus 37 species and subspecies that Audubon discovered himself.
What’s immediately intriguing about the Peabody’s exhibit is the prints’ unshakeable emotional resonance. Although every bird is a scientific specimen, these prints are not pure visual documentation. The birds are dynamic figures; even when they’re standing still they are contorted, opening their wings, craning their necks. The graceful, vibrant creatures are often fighting and swooping in for prey, positioned against sharply bristling greenery and stark, expansive landscapes. Not only is Audubon portraying the birds with a naturalist’s eye for realism, but he also conveys their raw beauty.
Audubon’s adult life was defined by his passion for birds. Born the illegitimate child of a French slave-owner in Haiti, Audubon grew up in France amidst the chaos of the French Revolution. As a young businessman he resettled in America, where he was immediately and inexplicably enchanted with America’s rich variety of birds. Audubon soon devoted himself to naturalism, living a pioneer lifestyle and crossing the country to document new species. The Peabody’s exhibit effectively portrays this long and arduous livelihood. Because Audubon ensured that his paintings depicted perfect anatomical accuracy, it was crucial for him to see each bird (dead) in the flesh. Audubon travelled extensively to observe birds in their natural habitat. But, if he got word of a new species in a far-off territory that he couldn’t feasibly visit, he always found a way to obtain the bird’s carcass. As we learn in the exhibit, the anatomical accuracy in Audubon’s prints is stunning.
According to Richard Kissel, Director of Public Programs (Exhibitions and Education) at the Peabody Museum, the intersection of art and science in Audubon’s work makes it truly fascinating. In fact, Kissel argues, The Birds of America not only shows an intersection of art and science—it exemplifies how the two disciplines are inextricably intertwined. Kissel writes in an email: “Humanity is a part of nature, so I view all art as falling within the realm of natural history; you can’t remove a species or its product from its broader context.” As Kissel explains, central to Audubon’s paintings are “certain elements of dramatic flair, eliciting emotion from viewers as he captured the beauty and (sometimes) brutality of nature.” After viewing the prints at the Peabody, I find this scientific artistry is evident. Audubon was profoundly skilled at portraying the harsh beauty of nature.
Though Audubon’s work is artistic, many view Audubon’s scientific contributions as paramount to his legacy. Michael Anderson, the Museum Preparator for the Peabody, explains Audubon’s lasting significance as attributable to the paintings’ unprecedented realism. Even today, “[one] can still go to an Audubon print and accurately count the primary feathers and find the exact shape, length and contour of any bird’s feathers.” Anderson likens Audubon’s innovations to today’s revolutions in 3-D printing. As one closely examines the perfect attention to detail in these elephant folios, it is difficult to conceive of Audubon’s profound devotion to his project. The Birds of America is no less than the product of an entire life of fieldwork. As I examined Audubon’s life-sized raven print, which meticulously replicates not only every physical detail but the true essence of this strange and majestic bird, I began to understand why Audubon has secured such a prominent place in the American imagination.