Preview: Brushing up on Audubon's genius
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As a youth growing up in France, John James Audubon never received formal artistic training. But he experimented constantly while painting birds and his innovative techniques distinguished his vivid images.
"He originally chose pastel. He wanted to get the texture of the feathers," said Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings for the New York Historical Society, which owns all 474 original watercolors Audubon painted.
By 1806, three years after he immigrated to Philadelphia, Audubon was starting to stain underneath pastel with watercolor, Ms. Olson said. Sometimes, he added metallic pigments such as gold or copper or applied special glazes. These multilayered watercolors inspired the prints that appeared in his landmark work, "The Birds of America," which established his international reputation as a naturalist and artist. Audubon spent much of his life exploring America's woods and swamps to document birds and other wildlife before his death in 1851.
Audubon's creative process will be Ms. Olson's topic when she speaks at 2 p.m. Friday at the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library. As part of the second annual Audubon Day, more than 20 original Audubon prints in the university's collection will be on display from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. in Room 363, the Special Collections Reading Room.
At 3 p.m., Ms. Olson will sign copies of her new book, "Audubon's Aviary" (Skira Rizzoli, $85) in the Cup & Chaucer Cafe on the library's ground floor. The event is free and open to the public.
The creation of "Audubon's Aviary" was possible because the New York Historical Society owns the painter's watercolors of birds. His widow, Lucy, sold most of them to the historical society in 1863.
"Joel Oppenheimer spent most of a whole summer with this amazing camera setup, retaking all of the watercolors so we have major new photography," Ms. Olson said.
No detail was too small for Audubon. While drawing and painting Carolina parakeets, which are now extinct, Audubon outlined thousands of the birds' shafts and barbs.
"When you look at it, the whole surface shimmers. He did this with many of these birds. The surface is alive in these watercolors," Ms. Olson said.
In 1999, while working as a guest curator at the New York Historical Society, she first saw Audubon's paintings.
"I was so bowled over by these watercolors. The watercolors are even more sensitive" than the engraved prints. "And they are one of a kind."
The Darlington Digital Library, a website created by the University of Pittsburgh, also was invaluable to her research.
"The beauty of the Darlington site is that you can put in a word, go to the number of the plate and read about a specific bird," Ms. Olson said. "Without Pitt's resources, it would have been very hard to write that book."
An obsessive perfectionist, Audubon measured all the parts of the birds he painted.
"He also tasted the bird. On the frontier they didn't have any food stores. He was employed as a hunter sometimes. Once when he was in Charleston, [South Carolina], having a feast with his fellow ornithologists, they didn't have any salt, so he used gunpowder" to salt the bird, Ms. Olson said.
One of the watercolors has undergone conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"The ivory-billed woodpecker has been at the Met for four years," Ms. Olson said. After it was torn, someone used tape to repair it and that left "a long brown river. Otherwise, it's in beautiful condition."
Ms. Olson believes the naturalist possessed a keen visual memory of how birds moved in the wilderness. "I think he saw the movement," and that's why his images "make you see it from below, as though it was happening above your head."
The curator also developed a sincere admiration for Audubon because "he did not let adversity get him down." In the summer of 1812, the naturalist returned home to Philadelphia after one of his many wilderness treks. He opened a large box in which he had stored roughly 1,000 bird illustrations for safekeeping. Rats had shredded the drawings and used them to feather their nest. He started over, reasoning that his new work would be better because his artistic abilities had improved.
"That's positive thinking," Ms. Olson said.
First Published November 14, 2012 12:00 am