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John James Audubon

Audubon

Attributed to John James Audubon, Osprey and the Otter and the Salmon, 1844, oil on canvas, 38 x 62". Collection of the ASU Art Museum, gift of Oliver B. James 1951.100.000.

About the Artist

John James Audubon's painting The Osprey and the Otter and the Salmon in the ASU Art Museum collection is characteristic of the artist's style and subject matter, but also unusual. The dramatic struggle for existence in nature and the attention to detail- the snarl of the otter, the pointed beak and sharp talons of the osprey, the red blood dripping from the side of the fish, and the textures of fur, feathers and scales -- add to the realism and excitement of the painting. The artist portrayed the bird and the otter in the wild, not as flat, lifeless specimens. The rich colors of the painting add to the drama and detail of the scene, but oil paint was not Audubon's typical medium. He did not feel as comfortable working in oil as he did in pencil, pastel, and watercolor. Many of his paintings in oil were done to make money for his Birds of America portfolio of etchings, and he would often produce multiple copies of the same subject to sell.

The Osprey and the Otter and the Salmon is similar to paintings in collections in Europe and North America. The date and signature are curious, as Audubon did not usually sign his oil paintings, and the date does not coincide with the years when he was in England producing such paintings to sell. The problem is not unique, for Audubon worked with other artists and his sons, leading to confusion as to the attribution of his works. Many of the questions about this painting have come up recently, and there is more research to be done to solve the mystery. Whatever the outcome, The Osprey and the Otter and the Salmon is an example of the growing interest in nature in the nineteenth century, and of the great influence that John James Audubon, an artist and a naturalist, had on the art of his time.

Audubon is best known for his watercolors of birds and for his portfolio The Birds of America. His studies of birds and other wildlife went beyond that of an artist; he wanted to capture every detail and make his drawings anatomically and scientifically correct. Audubon was never formally trained as an artist. His interests in wildlife and art began with sketches of birds done when he was a child. Audubon's studies of birds and animals were created through a combination of keen attention to detail and a deep knowledge and understanding of nature.

Audubon was born in Santo Domingo, now the Republic of Haiti, in 1785, but spent his childhood in France. When he was eighteen years old, he went to the United States to manage Mill Grove, an estate in Pennsylvania owned by his father. Audubon married Lucy Bakewell in 1808. They had two daughters who died very young, and two sons, John and Victor, who would share their father's interests in art and nature. Audubon was not as skilled in business as he was in art and he was faced with financial difficulties for much of his life. He moved from place to place trying to support his family and his ever-increasing interest in painting wildlife. From Kentucky to Cleveland to New Orleans, Audubon moved around the country searching for new species of birds and for a patron who could support his dream of painting every known species in America.

Audubon continued to paint and draw birds without much critical or financial success (he sold portraits to make money) and in 1826, went to Europe to see if he could find more interest in his work. In England he met Robert Havell, a renowned engraver who would engrave his works for publication. Together they produced The Birds of America, 435 hand-colored engravings published in a loose folio form on large sheets so as to represent the birds in their actual size. The book took twelve years, from 1826-38, to complete and about 200 copies were produced. With the publication of The Birds of America, Audubon earned the recognition that he had worked for so long to achieve.

Karlyn Benson, Curatorial Research Assistant
Graduate student in Art History

Bibliography

Audubon, John James. The Watercolors for the Birds of America. Edited by Annette Blaugrund and Theodore E. Stebins, Jr. New York: Villard Books: New York Historical Society, 1993.

Bannon, Lois Elmer and Taylor, Clark. Handbook of Audubon Prints. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Co., 1980.

Ford, Alice. Audubon's Animals -- The Quadrupeds of North America. New York: The Studio Publications, Inc., 1951.

Ford, Alice. John James Audubon: A Biography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Lindsey, Alton A. The Bicentennial of John James Audubon. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Reynolds, Gary A. John James Audubon and His Sons. New York: Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, 1982.

Streshinsky, Shirley. Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness. New York: Villard Books, 1993.

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