New! Audubon’s hungry hummingbirds are a spring art essential
Plate 47: Ruby-Throated Hummingbird by John James Audubon
10"x8" ($24) | 14"x11" ($60) | 20"x16" ($240) | 30"x24" ($800)
As a native New Yorker and novice birdwatcher, the emergence of early-morning whirrs and whistles is my sonic cue that winter has passed, and spring is in effect. To riff on a dad-rock classic: "the birds are back in town"! Well timed with this vernal awakening, 20x200 releases a Vintage Edition by the US naturalist and OG amateur scientist John James Audubon. What better watercolor to profile than the pulsing and exuberant Plate 47: Ruby-throated Hummingbird? Just one of 435 life-size images included in Audubon’s tome Birds of America, this piece promises a spirited start to the season.
In his written accompaniment to Plate 47: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Audubon implores the reader to admire the Hummingbird’s dynamic flight patterns. Indeed, the composition’s sprawling, splayed contours and the image’s decentralized focus encourage the viewer to scan this way and that, perhaps conjuring Audubon’s excitement as he scrambled from state to state in an ornithological haze. The artist describes the Hummingbird’s gleaming iridescence as “sublime”, — this is a man who talks about birds with a practically Transcendentalist tinge, as if his end goal is to rally poets, painters, and the populace to divert their worship away from the Church towards the natural world. Note that the bird’s source of sustenance is equally prominent: the trumpet-flower. The colorful flora serves as visual scaffolding for hungry Hummingbirds, each of which Audubon delicately annotates by number.
I associate hummingbirds with my first trip to Oakland, California, where I would track the reflective birds swooping up and down in hook-shaped trajectories, performing diving displays over the hills. Birdwatchers use these flight patterns to identify species from afar, because the birds’ bodies are too small to discern through binoculars. With Plate 47, Audubon has frozen this motion in time, his characteristically meticulous brushwork capturing more emotional nuance than a photograph ever could. It’s this identification game that often ends up pulling non-birders into a new, addictive (trust me) hobby.
Audubon’s personal history affirms that the bird-watching bug can bite almost anyone. Born in Haiti and raised in Nantes, France through his teenage years, Audubon settled in Pennsylvania and developed a quick knack for avian observation, a self-described “frenzy” that would follow him throughout his life. After filing bankruptcy in Kentucky, prompting a brief stint in jail in 1819 (oh my!), Audubon set off for the great outdoors with the ambitious goal of archiving the American bird. With little in the way of formal training, the artist sourced physical specimens for anatomical accuracy, and reproduced vibrant watercolors for each species. Audubon flexed his inner entrepreneur and sold folios on a subscription basis, hoping to garner the support of patrons who could fund the work’s publication. Today, the lion’s share of the original 120 books are owned by art institutions, with the one-off auction that values an edition at upwards of $10 million. Please do not touch!
Audubon’s enthusiasm to compile an unprecedented field-guide reminds us of Mother Nature’s powerful allure, a primordial force that compels the ecologically-inclined to leave a metropolitan life behind, and head into the wilderness unknown — or at least rent an Airbnb upstate and take a walk along the Hudson. Luckily for the modern-day bird-nerd like myself, Audubon left behind a striking series of images that stood the test of time, for their sheer utility and their emotional grandeur. This carefully remastered print of Plate 47: Ruby-throated Hummingbird (and the other editions in 20x200’s Audubon collection) is the perfect way to bring the mind-blowing beauty of the natural world into your everyday.
With art for everyone,