Project Information: Audubon's Birds
(2015 statement) In the popular imagination, John James Audubon is revered as a naturalist, and renowned as America’s “foremost painter of birds.” Audubon was also an avid hunter and skilled taxidermist, and amassed a huge collection of bird specimens over the course of his lifetime. The Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College holds a collection of thirty-five of these specimens. Working on site in a small back room at the museum, I am currently engaged in a slow process of re-drawing Audubon’s birds, from careful observation, almost two hundred years after his groundbreaking paintings were made. Once beautiful living birds in a much wilder North America, these fragile creatures are now misshapen, faded and falling apart. My desire is to approach these mysterious birds in a straightforward manner, and to contemplate them in counterpoint to Audubon's romantic legacy and the spirit of early American optimism from which it emerged.
The birds exist in a liminal space between nature and culture: not widely useful to science, they are primarily important as cultural objects, because they were collected by an important artist/naturalist. As much as I admire Audubon’s achievements, it is difficult for me to understand his prototypical nineteenth century approach to learning, categorizing, and collecting. I love the spirit of curiosity from which it originated, but I am troubled by its unselfconscious attitude of dominion, involving the subjugation of nature for the sake of the advancement of human knowledge. It is my ambivalence about this paradigm, in combination with a contemporary anxiety for the fate of imperiled species, that draws me to Audubon’s birds, specimens made especially poignant during the sixth great extinction in the history of the Earth.
In recent years, it has become clear that John James Audubon was a slaveowner and was dismissive and critical of the Abolitionist movement. For me, the widespread public emergence of these facts have amplified and reinforced my earlier critical engagement of Audubon's work in this project. For more information and reflection on Audubon's legacy on race as well as ornithology, see the article below by J. Drew Lanham from Audubon Magazine, "What do we do about John James Audubon," Spring 2021
Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
All images and text copyright 2006-2023 Gina Siepel. All rights reserved.