Audubon's birds, Audubon's words
Few books are more famous than John James Audubon's Birds of America. From the moment his birds began to emerge from the printing press in the 1820s, people marveled at their liveliness, as if the images might literally fly off the page in a ruffle of feathers. That liveliness was the product of Audubon's genius and his love for the "feathered tribe," but it was also the result of long, hard work. The artist traveled thousands of miles to watch, hunt, and draw his birds, neglecting his wife, children, and dry-goods business in the process. He then took his paintings to England and spent nearly infinite care supervising the preparation and printing of the 435 plates that make up the giant book. The result was a volume of such staggering charisma that it holds a whole fistful of auction records. For many decades until very recently, The Birds of America was by far the most expensive printed book in the world.
But the pictures are only half the story. Because of a quirk in British copyright law-and the usual writerly habit of missing deadlines-the texts Audubon wrote to accompany his images were published apart from the plates, appearing bit by bit throughout the 1830s. As a result, his words have always lingered in the shadows. That is a terrible pity, for Audubon was a gifted writer, and the word pictures he crafted for what he called the Ornithological Biography are just as much a virtuoso performance as the prints themselves. Audubon's English has grace, imagination, and flair-rare qualities under any circumstance, but doubly impressive given that his first language was French; he only learned English as a teenager. Perhaps because of that, there is always the sense that Audubon took particular care in selecting his words, examining each from all sides before he used it, as if to double check its meaning and rhythm.
Audubon's writing is, no surprise, strikingly visual, but it also has a quality that might be called experiential. Forever anxious about his lack of academic credentials, Audubon regularly defended his work by noting that others may have been more learned in anatomy and zoology, but only he knew the birds themselves, as they lived in their own world. "Nature," he insisted "must be seen first alive, and well studied, before attempts are made at representing it."* His readers could not share his experiences in the wilderness, so he tried very hard to bring the wilderness to them. That was why he insisted on depicting his birds at life size; and the same desire clearly shaped his writing. Over and over again he addresses his readers directly, with an urgency that is unusual in any sort of writing but especially in writing about art. He wants to take you by the hand and bring you with him, through the saw grass at the edge of a marsh, along a muddy riverbank, into the woods.
Of late, Audubon's words have finally begun to come to the fore. The Library of America, which aims to collect the very best of American writing, issued a compilation of Audubon's works, making him the only visual artist to join that elite group. So when we were planning a small exhibition of Audubon prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, we thought that it might be interesting to outsource the show's labels to Audubon himself-to get him to do the work. He turned out to be a natural.
The best museum label is one that gets a visitor to slow down and look, and then look again. A label needs to send its reader back to the image, rather than pulling away. For all of its long, clause-laden nineteenth-century sentences, Audubon's prose does just that. He is not shy: he speaks to readers directly, he tells them exactly what to look for, what they should see. Even when he is indulging himself by commenting on the suspect morals of the Blue Jay or comparing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker to a painting by van Dyck, he is also, at times almost surreptitiously, giving hints on how to look or pointing out a revealing detail. It's a trick that many a curator would do well to learn.
The following portfolio contains a small selection of images from Birds, with excerpts from Audubon's writing. The exhibition is on view through May 11.
* John James Audubon, Writings and Drawings (Library of America, New York, 1999), p. 756.
BENJAMIN WEISS is the Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Visual Culture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.