Plate 107: Canada Jay

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Artist Statement

 

"I have often been delighted by the sight of their graceful movements on alighting after removing from one tree to another, or while flying across a road or a piece of water. They have an odd way of nodding their head, and jerking their body and tail, while they emit their curiously diversified notes, which at times resemble a low sort of mewing, at others the sound given out by an anvil lightly struck with a hammer. They frequently alight about the middle of a tree, and hop with airy grace from one branch to another until they reach the very top, when they remove to another tree, and thus proceed through the woods. Their flight resembles that of the Blue Jay, although I do not consider it quite so firm or protracted.

...To my eye, the Canada Jay is as elegant in its movements, whether perched or on wing, as any other of our Jays, although its apparel is certainly very homely. It is joyous and lively at all times, even when, pushed by extreme hunger, it approaches the lonely camp of the traveller, with the hope of obtaining a share, however small, of his perhaps scanty fare."

- Birds of America

 

John James Audubon | See All Editions

 

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America, but for half a century he was the young country’s dominant wildlife artist. His seminal Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, is still a standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists are measured.

Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress. Early on, he was raised by his stepmother, Mrs. Audubon, in Nantes, France, and took a lively interest in birds, nature, drawing, and music. In 1803, at the age of 18, he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into the Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied, and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.

Audubon spent more than a decade as a businessman, eventually traveling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky—then the frontier—and setting up a dry-goods store in Henderson. He continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as a daughter who died in infancy. Audubon was quite successful in business for a while, but hard times hit, and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.

With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America’s avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, he lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. In 1826, he sailed with his partly finished collection to England. The American Woodsman was literally an overnight success. His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent’s Romantic era. Audubon found a printer for the Birds of America, first in Edinburgh, then London, and later collaborated with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray on the Ornithological Biographies—life histories of each of the species in the work.

The last print was issued in 1838, by which time Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort, traveled the country several more times in search of birds, and settled in New York City. Audubon’s story is one of triumph over adversity; his accomplishment is destined for the ages. He encapsulates the spirit of young America, when the wilderness was limitless and beguiling. He was a person of legendary strength and endurance, as well as a keen observer of birds and nature.

- National Audubon Society

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For our Vintage Editions series, our curators scour historical archives for both timeless classics and heretofore unseen gems. These images come back to life as exhibition-quality prints now available to everyone. As a bonus, purchasing equals patronage: sales from Vintage Editions prints go towards supporting our growing roster of artists.