The artists who flock to John Audubon
On the great bird artist’s birthday we take a look at the contemporary painters who draw upon his seminal work
John James Audubon made it his mission to document a certain part of the animal kingdom, and didn’t seem to care too much about the ecological cost. As our book, Animal: Exploring the Zoological World explains, “when the struggling artist and would-be ornithologist began his mission to paint every bird species of North America in 1820, he had already developed a method of shooting new specimens every few days and using wire and thread to arrange them,” explains our book. “The birds were all depicted at life size, and Audubon contorted them as necessary to fit on to his paper."
However, Audubon, who was born on this day 26 April, in 1785, not only influenced the way we see the natural world. He also left a sizable mark on the development of contemporary art. The American abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly developed an early admiration for Audubon’s work, after being given a copy of the artist’s bird picture book as a boy, and this, combined with Kelly’s appreciation of natural world, informed his artistic eye. “I believe my early interest in nature taught me how to ‘see," the artist said in our monograph.
New York artist Larry Rivers might be better known for bridging the gap between abstract expressionism and pop art, but he also had time for Audubon’s take on the natural world, and produced a number of pastiches of Audubon’s work, which were shown alongside the ornithologist's originals at a 2017 show in LA.
More recently, Kerry James Marshall showed his appreciation for the bird man, with a 2020 online presentation over on David Zwirner’s site. Marshall’s series, Black and Part Black Birds in America, took the ways in which American society categorised the continent’s human inhabitants, as an organising principle for his bird paintings.
The US once employed the one drop rule when it came to racial identity, which stated that, “that if you had one drop of African blood” in your biology you couldn’t be white.
This is key in the case of Audubon, who was born in Haiti, the son of a French naval officer, and may have been of mixed racial heritage himself, according to some accounts. With this in mind, Marshall has taken to painting both fully black American birds - such as the grackle, and birds with just a touch of black in their plumage, a list that includes the goldfinch.
“If you apply the one drop rule to these birds, then all these birds are black birds,” the artist said at the time. “At a certain point it starts to become kinda absurd. I’m addressing a certain kind of absurdity and also commenting on a certain kind of reality.”
To see more of Marshall’s beautiful artist commentary order a copy of this book; for more from Ellsworth Kelly consider this one; and to see Audubon’s birds in context consider buying a copy of Animal here.