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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Audubon of the Day: John James Audubon "Common American Swan"


John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Plate 411: Common American Swan
From Birds of America
Aquatint Engraving with original hand color
Framed: 37 1/4 x 49 1/2 inches; Paper size: 26 1/2 x 39 inches
London: Robert Havell, Jr., 1827-1838.

The publication of John James Audubon's Birds of America represented a landmark moment, not only in the history of ornithological painting, but in the history of art. Born in Haiti, Audubon spent his youth in France, where he studied for a time under Jacques Louis David. Returning to America in 1803, he embarked upon a series of ill-fated ventures as a farmer, merchant, and portrait painter. Yet none of these occupations engaged Audubon as much as his avocation: the search for birds and the studies and drawings that he made to record his discoveries and observations. A tireless entrepreneur, he devoted himself to an unprecedented project, becoming the first to attempt the seemingly insurmountable task of documenting all the bird life of North America.

The artist's tireless efforts and remarkable talent culminated in the publication in London of his 435-plate Birds of America (1827-1838), undoubtedly the greatest work on birds ever produced. His success was based on several factors: meticulous observation of nature, exacting draftsmanship, ceaseless travel for research, and the highest standards of production. Audubon imbued his images with such vitality that each bird seems to rise from the page, and with such art and drama that natural history illustration was changed indelibly. Every one of his birds symbolizes the spirit of American ingenuity and entrepreneurial instincts that fueled the project. The celebration of this quintessentially American work, and the enterprising, talented artist who created it, has grown steadily since the time of its publication.

The Whistling Swan, or Common American Swan, as Audubon called it is one of only two swan species native to America. These birds spend the summer north of the Arctic Circle, north and west of Hudson Bay, and as the ice starts to lock the bay migrate in the thousands southward. The flock splits and some head for the central valleys of California while others progress to the Atlantic, past Lake Huron and Lake Erie to the waters of the Chesapeake and the bays of North Carolina. In his magnificent depiction of this powerful bird, Audubon included three yellow water lilies which he believed to be a new species and named Nymphea Leitneria.

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