Happy Birthday, John James Audubon

Audubon

One of America’s first great success stories began 230 years ago today. Back then Audubon’s rise to fame was far from certain and definitely not easy. Viewing him as a controversial figure, the scientific community in his adopted homeland even initially rejected his work. Only due to his perseverance and talent was the man whose name today is synonymous with all things bird-related able to secure his rightful place in history.

Born on a Caribbean Plantation

On April 26, 1785, our hero’s unlikely story started in a French colony in an area known today as Haiti. An illegitimate child born to the owner of a sugar plantation, the boy initially resided in the Caribbean. Within a few years, though, his father brought him to France. There he began drawing. Audubon later in life attributed several childhood experiences with his passion for birds, one of which oddly enough involved a parrot-killing monkey. Reportedly, the young Audubon wailed for the dead pet bird, which was later “buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one” (1).

Immigrating to the United States, where he soon married and became a citizen, Audubon continued his lifelong fascination of studying and illustrating birds. His travels took him through much of the continental United States, including parts of New England, the Ohio River Valley, and the Louisiana territory. He interacted with the Native Americans of the frontier, especially the Osage tribesmen (2). On one occasion while hunting a great horned owl, Audubon reported falling into “quicksand up to my armpits” but was pulled free by his companions (3, 4). Like other ornithologists of that day, he often had to kill his specimens. Instead of photography—cameras had not been invented yet—he had to rely on his shotguns (5, 6).

Continuing to perfect his artistic skills, Audubon developing a special grid-board with wires for mounting his avian specimens in life-like poses. The belted kingfisher was the first bird he painted via this new system, a method that he would eventually share with other ornithologists (7). His first successful depictions of birds in flight were of a whippoorwill and nighthawk (8). Throughout his lifetime, Audubon illustrated at least 440 species of birds, according to an estimate made in William Souder’s Under a Wild Sky (9). Among these creatures, the wild turkey ranked among his favorites, its image used for his own personal seal (10, 11). Known primarily today for his paintings of birds, Audubon also illustrated other animals (12). He even made a living during some of his travels by working on portraits (13).

A Few Missteps

Richard Rhodes’s John James Audubon: The Making of an American and Souder’s book, both published in 2004, are wonderful sources for an in-depth view of Audubon’s triumphs and struggles. Much of the information cited here is available in those two biographies. From these books, one can easily sense that Audubon was a man of remarkable expertise, talent, ingenuity, and fortitude. Yet, all these traits beg an important question: Why was he forced to seek endorsement and financial assistance in Britain to publish his magnum opus?

Part of the problem likely involved Audubon’s personality. He was known on occasion to stretch the truth. He frequently misrepresented his origins, but understandably so due to social stigma and legal issues (14, 15). Other statements he made, though, seem less reasonable, such as his dubious claims about receiving instruction from the French portrait painter Jacques-Louis David and hunting with Daniel Boone (16, 17). Some of his field studies and accounts drew ridicule for misinformation, in particular those regarding rattlesnake behavior (18) and his claim that turkey vultures cannot smell (19, 20). While such circumstances are notable blemishes, one must keep in mind that reputable ornithologists of that time period were not immune to mistakes.

Like all great men and women in history, Audubon had his share of flaws. For instance, he and his wife for a few years owned several slaves (21). As noted above, he may have been dishonest at times. Some people, too, may find fault in that he killed hundreds of birds to complete his drawings. Let’s not overlook the fact, though, that he also kept several as pets (22), and that he was concerned about the effects of industrialization on avian habitats (23). But most importantly, besides being the foremost expert on American birds in his day, Audubon was a pioneering artist.

Success First in Britain then America

Some influential people in U.S. ornithological circles refused initially to acknowledge the value of his work, most notably, George Ord, who held prominent positions in the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Believing Audubon lacked the necessary integrity and aesthetic style for science illustrations, Ord and others within the establishment treated the outsider with disdain. Most likely, Ord, who had played a role in the late Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, felt Audubon a personal threat (25). No such resistance occurred in Britain, where Audubon was able to secure the means to print volumes from 1827 through 1838 of his Birds of America, a masterpiece of unequaled quality and scope.

Unlike previous illustrations of ornithological specimens from the United States, Audubon painted his birds in life-sized proportions. He also chose to represent his subjects interacting with one another and their environment. And, as a special thank-you to his supporters, Audubon named several species of birds for international ornithologist-friends, such as Charles-Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), William Swainson, and William MacGillivray (26).

Later, praises and admiration followed in his adopted homeland. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest and most respected conservation groups in the world, was named in his honor. In fact, digital reproductions of Audubon’s work are featured on the group’s website. Also, several historic sites in the U.S. share his namesake, including John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky.

Sources:

  1. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 4–5, 21–22.
  2. Rhodes, R. pp. 82–83.
  3. Rhodes, R. p. 116.
  4. Souder, W. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. New York: North Point Press, 2004. p. 147.
  5. Rhodes, R. pp. 11, 73–74.
  6. Souder, W. pp. 97–99.
  7. Souder, W. P. 71.
  8. Rhodes, R. pp. 101–102.
  9. Souder, W. p. 286.
  10. Souder, W. p. 245.
  11. Rhodes, R. p. 273.
  12. Rhodes, R. pp. 240–241, 262–263, 335.
  13. Rhodes, R. pp. 145, 216.
  14. Rhodes, R. pp. 4–5, 315.
  15. Souder, W. pp. 11, 19–21.
  16. Rhodes, R. pp. 315, 346.
  17. Souder, W. pp. 11, 264–266.
  18. Souder, W. pp. 223–225.
  19. Souder, W. p. 219.
  20. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 53–54, 62–63.
  21. Rhodes, R. p. 115.
  22. Rhodes, R. pp. 117–118.
  23. Rhodes, R. p. 280.
  24. Rhodes, R. pp. 221–223.
  25. Souder, W. pp. 286–287.

Ancient Flights of the Eternal

Tomb_of_Nebamun_web

Earth, air, and water. Birds embody transition, shifting effortlessly from one realm to another. What if these graceful beings, however, also possessed the power to freely pass to and from other worlds, going off to some Great Beyond or communing with the divine? Ancient art and scriptures throughout much of the world, from India to Egypt, allude to these kinds of beliefs.

The earliest depictions of avian creatures, discovered in caverns of Western Europe, such as Lascaux, Les Trois Frères, Cosquer, Chauvet, and El Pendo (1, 2), provide our first look into how humankind viewed its relationship with birds. Some of the art, which includes designs of owls and auks, dates back to at least 15,000 years ago (3, 4). Ornithologist Edward Armstrong notes that such prehistoric images of birds, usually found in remote cave areas, are actually not common, adding, “The secretive location of these designs suggests they had some esoteric or magical significance” (5). As civilization developed centuries later, the ideas behind bird imagery became bolder and more well-defined.

Links to the Divine and Transcendent

Birds in the iconography and stories of antiquity often hold varying degrees of religious significance. In some instances, the creatures were directly linked with divine entities. For example, in ancient Greece, carvings and sculptures of birds associated with certain deities (e.g., Zeus’s eagle) appeared on temples (6). In parts of India, a wide range of art and architecture features birds, including Buddhist stupas from fourth-century BCE and Hindu stepwell relief sculptures as early as seventh-century CE (7). Hinduism, like other ancient belief systems, connects several of its divine entities with winged associates. Brahma and his consort Saraswati, for instance, have the peacock (8). Other examples of such pairings include the partridge, linked with the god Indra, and the parrot, a favorite of Kama, the god of love (9, 10).

Not just associated with the divine, birds also exemplify the spiritual or transcendent aspects of human life and also life-after-death. For instance, bird symbolism is used in the Hindu Rigveda to describe the passage of the human spirit once liberated from the body (11). Other kinds of stories, though, seem less figurative, in that they tell of people who supposedly changed form. The eighth-century Kojiki, a collection of ancient Japanese myths and historical accounts, reports of an early hero who upon death transforms into an enormous seabird. The description is rather moving: “His wife and children chase after [him] over sea and shore,” scholar Yoel Hoffmann explains, “cutting their feet on bamboo stumps and singing songs of mourning” (12).

In many cultures, birds appear as psychopomps or guides to the afterlife. Some examples include the so-called “Three Birds of Rhiannon”, believed by the ancient Welsh to sing on battlefields (13), and the Celtic goddess Mórrigan said to appear to dying warriors as a crow (14). I can imagine that in such scenarios the weary, untethered spirit was assumed to flutter out of a battle-torn corpse, emerging in flight with its avian guides. Such escorts to the netherworld or afterlife, of course, are not always connected to combat-related fatalities (see a previous post here for some additional information).

The Egyptians’ Obsession with Immortality

As naturalist Ernest Ingersoll notes in his early twentieth-century classic Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, ideas “… that the disengaged soul departs to heaven in the form of or by aid of a bird is historically very old” (15). Disparate cultures are known for such beliefs, including the Assyrians, Aztecs, and Australian aborigines (16). The ancient Egyptians, in particular, were among the earliest of civilizations enthralled by myriad aspects of the spiritual with birds. Besides worshipping a list of deities represented with avian heads (e.g., Geb, Horus, Thoth, Nut, etc.), Nile River Valley residents millennia ago also emphasized the roles of birds throughout an elaborate system of burial practices and afterlife beliefs.

Archeologists have discovered avian imagery and relics in the Egyptian tombs of ancient rulers, scribes, and other officials of high rank. In several instances, bird iconography found at these sites appears to celebrate the hunting prowess of the deceased, such as the wildfowl hunt scene paintings in King Tutankhamen’s tomb (17), Nebamum’s burial chamber (18), and the tomb of Khnumhotep II (19). Experts believe that paintings like these may have also held some sort of magical significance, working as enchantments “to control chaos and to destroy evil forces” (20). In this sense, the Egyptians may have created the images as some arcane means of offering protection and subsistence for the spirit and preserved body in the hereafter.

Besides paintings, other bird-related items to aid the deceased have been found in cemeteries and tombs. For instance, Book of the Dead papyri provide “transformation spells” that include incantations for becoming a “falcon of gold”, “heron”, “swallow”, and “phoenix”, among other possible creatures in the afterlife (21). Furthermore, small figurines of human-headed birds were usually left near the mummified remains. Referred to as ba-birds, the items were thought to represent the deceased’s spirit or ba, giving it the ability to move on as needed in its afterlife (22).

Even preserved bodies of birds and other animals were enclosed in tombs and sanctuaries. Archeologists have discovered millions of mummified ibises within Thothian temples at Saqqara and Tuna al-Gebel (23). Similar counts exist at necropolis sites of other animals, ranging from birds such as falcons to lizards, beetles, and jackals (24). The Egyptians apparently were obsessed with all forms of the eternal. Birds, though, important in many early cultures, clearly played a pivotal part in their complex belief system.

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 200.
  2. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  5. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 155.
  7. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 141-151.
  8. Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
  9. Bunce, F.W. A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1997. pp. 140, 278.
  10. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. pp. 317, 319.
  11. Bhatt, P.M.. p. 145.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. pp. 33-34.
  13. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 14.
  14. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  15. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. p. 149.
  16. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press. p. 49.
  17. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  19. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 376.
  20. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. p. 201.
  21. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34-35.
  22. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. pp. 201-202.
  23. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. p. 299.
  24. Scalf, R. p. 36.