If your impression of the paintings of French-American naturalist, ornithologist and artist John James Audubon is based on small reproductions of some of his more subdued bird images, you may be surprised by the views afforded in this terrific online resource.
The University of Pittsburgh, which owns a rare complete edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, has digitized and made available online high resolution reproductions of the over 400 plates.
Birds of America was the culmination of Audubon’s quest to paint every known bird in North America. Though he fell short of that goal due to reaching the limits of his personal finances, he painted 435 beautifully detailed paintings, from which he created a most remarkable book.
Engravings made from his paintings were the basis for the plates, and the final pages were hand colored by assistants using Audubon’s paintings as a guide.
Audubon insisted that the birds be represented life-size, and the edition was printed on the largest mold made paper available at the time, known as “double elephant folio” size (26 x 38 inches, 66 x 96 cm). This is also why many of the larger birds are portrayed in somewhat contorted positions to fit the limits of the page, and why many of the smaller species are are shown in tableaux that fill the large spaces with multiple animals and surrounding environment.
The University of Pittsburgh’s online resource for Birds of America includes a history of the book and the digitizing project. They have also digitized his related text, Ornithological Biography and its accompanying plates as well.
The plates themselves come up in a viewing box that allows you to zoom way in on the detailed, high resolution images. What’s not obvious, and is key to enjoying the high res images, is that the zoom box has small adjustment grippers on the right and bottom edges that allow you to open the zooming window as large as your monitor will allow. In addition to the plus and minus controls, there is a triangular slider above them that allows for finer control of the zooming. Click and drag to pan.
Many of Audubon’s images involve more complex compositions and more visual drama than you might expect, particularly in cases where he has illustrated their relationship to natural predators or prey.
The details are also eye-opening. The anatomical details of talons and legs in particular will be notable for those interested in paleo art, and the backgrounds are surprisingly rich and varied, interesting in themselves as artworks.
Audubon, though he was creating a scientific treatise, was concerned with the book as a work of art. The plates were arranged for the esthetic impact on the reader rather than then being presented according to taxonomy, for which he was criticized by scientists at the time.
I don’t think that Audubon had to worry too much about his critics. After his remarkable achievement, and its enthusiastic reception worldwide, he could just flip them the bird.