Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Day Ninety-Eight: A Dodo Bird
Today is John James Audubon's birthday.
I drew this Reunion solitaire Dodo bird, Raphus solitarius to mark the event. Unfortunately, this dodo bird, along with the other two known species, are all extinct. They once lived on the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean, but these slow, clumsy, and flightless birds were unable to defend themselves against man, and by the eighteenth century, they were all gone.
Audubon never drew a dodo bird; he wasn't born until 1785, and by then these birds were extinct. His masterwork, The Birds of North America, is generally considered to be one of the finest collections of natural history illustrations of all times. I had the great good fortune of seeing the original watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston many years ago, and it is truly an amazing accomplishment.
But Audubon wasn't a very nice guy. In order to accurately paint his birds, he shot dozens, often hundreds of a single species, and then would wire the dead birds into realistic poses. It's true that before photography, drawing from a dead bird was the only way to be accurate, but his slaughter was excessive.
His obsession with publishing his masterpiece put his family into serious financial straits. His wife, who bore him many children, was forced to work to support the family, while Audubon went off again on one of his lengthy trips to paint birds.
And he employed a number of other artists to paint foliage, flowers, insects, etc. in his paintings, but he never gave any of them any credit.
Still, his realistic paintings were a new and daring way to depict birds, and they have certainly withstood the test of time. He remains a master of the genre.
Happy Birthday, Audubon.