Emily Sullivan is a sophomore at Syracuse University. She is majoring in illustration and enjoys painting, exercising, and exploring our natural environment and learning about our environment and society.
John James Audubon lived most of his life watching birds fly freely among humans and was fascinated by their diverse beauty and personalities. Born in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti), and brought up in France, Audubon moved to America during the start of the Napoleonic wars. In America, a vast and great wilderness gave him multiple opportunities to study fascinating birds of more variety than he had ever seen before. As he set out to draw and study every bird he came across in his new adopted country, he paid as close attention as possible to the actual size and color of the birds he encountered. This devotion to accuracy would set the tone for his publication, the famous The Birds of America (1827-1838). After many years of recording American birds and armed with over 400 life-size bird drawings, Audubon set out to England in search of an engraver and publisher. After a few exhibitions of his work, he became famous and many wealthy customers, including king George IV himself, sought to purchase his hand-painted plates. Today John James Audubon is still renowned for his contributions to scientific and ornithological research as well as to the art world.
While Audubon shot his birds and often created specimens of them, he also spent a lot of time observing them. He would observe the bird’s movements, behavior, social patterns, diet and more, to produce a comprehensive and credible image of the bird. On his “double elephant folio” paper (39.5 x 26.5 inches), Audubon would develop life-size, elaborate drawings of American bird species. In each of his images, every bird had a personality of its own. At the time, most ornithological drawings were based on the dead forms of specimens that were created in advance, resulting in very flat images (such as Alexander Wilson’s renderings) —but Audubon went above and beyond the typical specimen drawing. In his images, there was always a story and a sense of action or suspense expressed through the bird’s movements. The viewer could feel the birds as if they were alive in their natural habitats, a far cry from the stiff, lifeless forms that were otherwise drawn and printed on blank pages. Moreover, Audubon would often include elaborate vegetation and landscapes in his compositions, thereby giving his viewers a sense of the vast American wilderness that these creatures inhabited.
Audubon’s prints were not ordinary ornithological specimen recordings; they were something never done or seen before. They combined Audubon’s knowledge of science and his artistic skills, thus bringing to life on paper exquisite representations of fantastic American creatures. Each bird was accurately rendered down to its every last detail. Sometimes Audubon would even distort his birds to make them more visually alive and interesting. Audubon’s ground-breaking approach to representing birds is what qualifies him as an artist working in the era of Romanticism. Let us now turn to the American Crow, one of the many well-known prints in Audubon’s Birds of America and one of the most common birds in America. How might we characterize this image as one that fits into the broader scope of Romanticism?
Drawn by Audubon and engraved and hand-colored in 1833 by the printmaker Robert Havell, Audubon’s American Crow is shown perched on a walnut tree branch above the delicate nest of a ruby throated hummingbird. The dark form of the bird contrasts sharply with the rest of the print. Its head is gracefully turned to look at us as if we have caught him in the act of stealing the hummingbird’s eggs. One of its legs is elegantly stretched out for the viewer to see as if the crow were about to take a step up to get a better look at the eggs. Carefully rendered, its claws accurately drawn, the crow is shown in all its glory, its feathers iridescent in the light with highlights of purples, reds and blues, its glistening eye animating its expression. Audubon chose to leave the background white rather than add any hint of landscape. The white background helps to isolate the bird as our focal point, drawing attention to the bird as a specimen. It also contrasts beautifully with the crow’s black body.
Audubon’s composition leaves the viewer guessing as to what might happen next, which most likely ends with the crow quickly snatching the delicate hummingbird eggs. This kind of storytelling strategy is very common in Audubon’s prints such as the one depicting a golden eagle taking off with a rabbit in its talons or the image portraying a group of ivory-billed woodpeckers discovering a bug on a dead tree. What is interesting about the American Crow is that the viewer feels like one is a part of the picture space. The crow interacts with us as if we have stumbled upon it right before it was about to steal the eggs. It seems to have turned around to notice us watching. This kind of intimate view probably stemmed from Audubon’s personal experiences with crows. In his writings, Audubon observes that the crow was very cautious of his surroundings and stealthy in its actions. American Crow captures the shy yet cunning personality of the crow who in turn appears to observe us as it plans to snatch the eggs.
The crow can also be considered one of the most detested birds in America. Often viewed negatively as the thief of birds that ruins crops, dwells in graveyards, and signals bad luck, death and more, the crow rarely evokes any positive associations. But Audubon was one of the few who saw a remarkable beauty in the creature, which is evident in his print and also in his writings. Audubon does not shy away from depicting the cunning personality of the bird as it stalks the precious eggs; instead, he accentuates this trait as a sign of superior intelligence among birds. It is the crow’s intelligence that enables it to feed itself and others. Indeed, the crow is known as a scavenger that annoys various birds and animals around it as it attempts to sneak off with one of their prey. Moreover, the crow and its flock will often eat large amounts of corn grown by the farmer in his field. Despite these actions that have given the crow its bad reputation, we often overlook the good that the crow does for us and the ecosystem as well. As Audubon observed, the “crow devours myriads of grubs every day of the year, that might lay waste the farmer’s fields; it destroys quadrupeds innumerable, every one of which is an enemy to his poultry and his flocks. Why then should the farmer be so ungrateful, when he sees such services rendered to him by a providential friend, as to persecute that friend even to the death?” (Audubon, 88). While the crow might eat the farmer’s corn, it also inadvertently helps the farmer by eating harmful insects and driving away or killing harmful animals. The crow “plunders the fields of their superabundance, and is blamed for so doing, but it is seldom praised when it chases the thieving Hawk from the poultry-yard” (Audubon, 88). Audubon tells us that crows are much more beautiful creatures than what meets the eye.
The crow is a very social animal that forms flocks in the hundreds or even thousands. Yet it is depicted as a solitary creature in Audubon’s print. In fact, in most of Audubon’s prints, birds like crows that are commonly found in a flock, are placed among others of their species or at least with a male/ female counterpart. But the crow is shown independently and humbly on its own. This gives the crow the grandeur we find in Audubon’s renderings of larger, more powerful birds such as the Golden Eagle or the Great Blue Heron who are also shown alone. Additionally, Audubon’s composition of the crow observing us emphasizes the bird’s intelligence; the crow appears more thoughtful in a way that coaxes us, the viewer, to relate our own emotions to the crow. Interestingly, the crow is situated on a black walnut tree which is one of the scarcest and most commercially valuable trees in the eastern hardwood forest. Such a visual juxtaposition further demonstrates the value Audubon sees in the elegant, powerful, and intelligent American crow.
Audubon saw something special in every animal around him and drew attention to the need to respect and protect them and their habitats. Today, we see more and more birds fall victim to our destructive ways of life. Pollution, hunting, technology, and industrial agriculture threaten every aspect of animal life and the natural environment that animals inhabit. While many individuals are unaware of the consequences their actions have on animals and nature, Audubon thought the least we could is try to respect them and become less selfish about their existence: “every individual in the land is aware of the superabundance of food that exists among us, and of which a portion may well be spared for the feathered beings, that tend to enhance our pleasures by the sweetness of their song, the innocence of their lives, or their curious habits.” (Audubon, 88). The National Audubon Society, while it was not created by Audubon himself, was established keeping in mind Audubon’s principles about the protection and conservation of birds. Founded by George Bird Grinnell in 1905, the National Audubon Society uses science, education and grassroots advocacy to advance its conservation mission. Nearly 500 chapters nationwide serve to protect birds and their habitats every day, all inspired by John James Audubon and his quest to raise awareness about America’s wildlife.
Acknowledgement: Emily Sullivan would like to thank Dr. Mark Hauber, Harley Jones Van Cleave Professor of Host-Parasite Interactions in the School of Integrative Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for his help while writing this essay.