Other Audubons: Naturalists before and after John James

Image Caption: Life cycle illustration from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium. Amsterdam :Voor den auteur, als ook by G. Valck,[1705]. from the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s image collection on Flickr. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible online the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections.

Quite possibility one of the most recognized names in natural history art is John James Audubon (1785-1851), considered one of the greatest bird artists, namesake of the Audubon Society and famous for his double elephant-folio volumes of the Birds of America. Audubon hunted his subjects and used these freshly killed birds in life-like poses for drawing.  Conservation of nature was not much of a consideration at this time and Audubon might shoot many birds before he found what he considered the perfect representation of the species. Audubon’s life work and act of Creation was also an act of destruction, an unrealized possibility of extinction.

In my youth I often went camping in MacKerricher State Park, on the Northern California coast.  I kept a journal to record aspects of small plants and animals I found along the beach and in the nearby woods.  Each entry was focused on a detailed penciled drawing of the creature.  Little did my young mind know this was a child’s play of natural history illustration. Our species’ interest and fascination in drawing the natural world around us goes back into prehistory long before Audubon when people first drew charcoaled animals on cave walls.  

This was a life’s work held by some women long before it was acceptable for them to be scientists and naturalists, women like Maria Sibylla Merian who in 1699 traveled from Amsterdam to South America to study metamorphosis and is known for her beautifully accurate drawings of the life cycles of butterflies.  This exceptional naturalist’s story is brought to life in Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis.  It was a profession held by women like Genevieve Jones who went out into the field with her father an amateur ornithologist to find bird nests and eggs to collect, identify, and draw. She noted that Audubon had not included eggs or nests in his drawings in any detail.  Jones’ life work and posthumously her family’s became the  Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio (1879). Virginia, Genevieve Jones’ mother stated that the family finished the drawings and created the book in memory of their daughter. “She had just begun the work when she died. So for her sake I made it as perfect as possible.” The story of the book’s creation and the Jones family’s colorful illustrations are on display in America’s Other Audubon by Joy Kiser.

Natural history illustration is a practice which was not quashed by the advent of the camera; neither captured light on film nor the instantaneousness and abundance of today’s digital images can completely achieve what can be expressed with the process and art of natural history illustration. Unlike a digital image which captures perfectly one particular individual at one particular moment in time, a drawing or painting of a heron or a moth can be the perfect hypothetical representation of its species.

Art and science converge in natural history illustration.  Katrina van Grouw aptly demonstrates this convergence in The Unfeathered Bird, a richly illustrated book showing birds painstakingly drawn without their feathers. This recent (2013) book combines “the visual beauty and attention to detail of the best historical illustrations with an up-to-date knowledge of field ornithology.”  It is is a book that shows how the birds’ outward “appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.”  The Unfeathered Bird bridges art, science, and history and is an unique offering in the continued practice of natural history illustration.  

For more comprehensive collections of natural history art check out the oversized Cabinet of Natural Curiosities which illustrates Albertus Seba 's unusual collection of natural specimens from the 18th century, dig into David Attenborough’s Amazing Rare Things for a history of natural history illustration in the age of discovery, or browse through an overview of three centuries of natural history art from around the world in Art & Nature by Judith Magee.  Anyone interested in the beauty of the natural world will be drawn to the interlocking fields of art and science that natural history illustration creates.


Image: Life cycle illustration from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium
Amsterdam :Voor den auteur, als ook by G. Valck,[1705]. from the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s image collection on Flickr. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible online the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections.

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