As someone who paints birds, I was excited to hear that original plates from John J. Audubon’s Birds of America would be on display at the TD gallery in the Toronto Reference Library. Bird paintings are not generally welcome in art galleries, so it’s a treat when a show like this comes along.
Each engraved image was based directly on Audubon’s drawings which were then individually hand-tinted by a team of colourists. The plates/pages from the book are massive. This is how Audubon intended an audience to experience his work. You see details that just aren’t there in the present day books. It’s the same difference you’d feel if you watched a movie on a big screen tv and then watched the same movie on a phone.
The plates selected for the show include some that show remarkable sensitivity, in particular the image of Passenger Pigeons. My personal favourite is the Yellow Warbler plate. It’s a direct portrait and reminds me of the spring arrival of warblers to the shores of Lake Ontario.
As a bonus, I discovered that the Reference Library has a book with Audubon’s early drawings. Some might find these drawings crude because they lack the animated quality of his mature works, but I think they’re pretty swell. J.J. taught himself through trial and error and I love how he mixed pastels with graphite and ink. His ability to handle the colours and textures of feathers are superb even in his early years.
Audubon’s breakthrough came when he devised a method to pose dead birds to appear lifelike. Using sharpened wire, he would pin (some might say impale) his birds into position against a board with a grid pattern. By drawing on paper with a corresponding grid, he could ensure his proportions were accurate. While a lack of refrigeration forced Audubon to work quickly, over time he became skilled at taxidermy and would paint from birds that he wired and stuffed into lifelike models. The Royal Ontario Museum has a Great Auk that he taxidermied to serve as the model for one of the birds in his Great Auk painting.
I’m just scratching the surface of Audubon’s fascinating life and times, and there’s something we can all learn from this pioneer of avian art. If you get the chance to stop by the show, I recommend it because it could be many years before these original plates are displayed again.