The bird painter who helped Ellsworth Kelly to imagine
John James Audubon was born today, 26 April, in 1785 - Ellsworth Kelly was a big fan, you might be too
Though the American artist Ellsworth Kelly is best known for his abstract, non-figurative works, he was profoundly influenced by nature, and artists who devoted themselves to the natural world.
When he was a child, Kelly's family lived near the Oradell Reservoir in New Jersey, and his paternal grandmother, Rosenlieb, would take him to the waterside there to observe the birdlife.
Ellsworth enjoyed studying the avian plumage, and he also enjoyed another ornithological wonder that Rosenlieb passed on to him: the work of the painter and illustrator John James Audubon. He would examine the illustrations of this most famous 19th century ornithologist-artist while laid up with childhood illnesses in bed, and the works would come to exert a strong influence on him throughout his long career.
Audubon, who was born in the French Caribbean, but made his name in the US, is best-known for his four-volume publication called, The Birds of America, which, as our book Plant explains, was "published over twelve years from 1827, and was groundbreaking in its detail and beauty." Today's bird watchers might be startled to learn that Audubon shot and killed many of his subjects. Arranging the dead birds in naturalistic positions, enabled him to capture their likeness. Yet, any temporary loss in the natural habitat was surely recompensed by Audubon's incredible visual record.
Kelly admired the birds' forms and colours, and understood how the natural world informed his work. “I remember vividly the first time I saw a Redstart, a small black bird with a few very bright red marks,” the artist explained in our monograph. “I believe my early interest in nature taught me how to ‘see’.”
Some credit for that heightened visual perception must also go to Audobon's detailed, observant works. To see Audubon's work alongside many other masters of the natural world, get Plant – his picture of Cuvier’s Wren (Named for the great French naturalist, Baron Cuvier, the existence of this bird has never been verified) perching on a flowering shrub is reproduced in the book. Meanwhile, to see more of Kelly's beautiful abstraction, order this book.