John James Audubon The Watercolors for the Birds of America
by Shirley Streshinsky, Villard Books, 432 pages.
edited by Annette Blaugrund and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Villard Books, 384 pages.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the fauna of the American interior were as novel and exciting a scientific frontier as the human genome is today. John James Audubon made a lifelong project of becoming the artist-ornithologist who would reveal the birds of America to the world. The obsession took up most of his years, and when he wasn’t studying birds and shooting them and painting them, he was journeying through Scotland, England, and France trying to sell subscriptions to his monumental work, dressed in the garb of a frontiersman as he called on personages from Louis Bonaparte to Sir Walter Scott. His story, absorbingly told by the novelist Shirley Streshinsky, is one of a man who made one aspect of the vanishing wilderness his life.
The hundreds of watercolors he painted for his great project will for the next two years be on tour in a major exhibition that reaches, among other places, the Art Institute of Chicago next May, the New-York Historical Society in May 1995, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in February 1996. In conjunction with the show, an extremely handsome volume of reproductions of the watercolors has just been published, with 470 full-color images and informative essays. Engrossing short texts face most of the full-page plates and point out what the pictures show about both the artist and the birds he was portraying. The quality of the reproductions is exemplary.