American Flamingo is one of the 435 hand-colored engravings that make up John James Audubon’s monumental Birds of America, issued in four volumes between 1826 and 1838. The massive publication includes life-size representations of nearly five hundred species of North American birds. Although Audubon was not the first to attempt such a comprehensive catalog, his work departed from conventional scientific illustration, which showed lifeless specimens against a blank background, by presenting the birds as they
appeared in the wild. When his pictures were first published, some naturalists objected to Audubon’s use of dramatic action and pictorial design, but these are the qualities that set his work apart and make it not only an invaluable record of early American wildlife but an unmatched work of American art.
John James Audubon was born in Haiti and educated in France, where he began to explore the natural environment and develop his talent for drawing and eye for beauty. In the first decade of the nineteenth century he immigrated to the United States to manage a farm his family owned near Philadelphia. He lost it through neglect, distracted by the overwhelming bounty and variety of exotic birds he found in the region. Audubon eventually set himself the heroic task of locating, collecting, and depicting every species of bird native to North America. He moved his family briefly to New Orleans, explored the environs of the Mississippi River, a major flyway for migratory birds, and eventually wandered farther from home to comb the American frontier for unrecorded species.
Audubon’s procedure was to study and sketch a bird in its natural habitat before killing it carefully, using fine shot to minimize damage. His critical innovation was to then thread wire through the specimen, allowing him to fashion a lifelike pose. He worked in
watercolor, and had completed some four hundred paintings when he decided to publish them as a folio of prints. Failing to find support in Philadelphia, he sailed for England, where he became lionized as “The American Woodsman.” The engraving firm Robert Havell and Son took on the challenge of reproducing Audubon’s paintings on copper plates and tinting the resulting black-and-white prints by hand.
To make Birds of America useful to both professional and amateur ornithologists, Audubon portrayed his subjects at eye level so that their distinctive markings would be clearly visible. He also painted them as near as possible to their actual size. The images are huge, each about three feet by two feet; nevertheless, to make the larger specimens fit the page, Audubon had to mold them into unusual attitudes. Because the American flamingo can stand up to five feet high, Audubon was obliged to depict that bird bending down, about to dip its beak into the water. His solution has other advantages since it allows us to study not only the unmistakable plumage but other distinguishing traits that might otherwise be hidden from view: long spindly legs that help the flamingo wade into deep water, webbed toes to support it on muddy ground, a serpentine neck to twist the head backward in the water, and a boomerang-shaped beak to filter water and trap food. Flamingos are uncommonly social creatures, so Audubon included other birds from the flock in the background, standing tall in shallow water; some appear in the more characteristic one-legged pose. The distant view also affords a glimpse of the flamingo’s habitat, the marshes and barren mud flats not far from the coast.
Audubon’s eye for design lends another dimension to his accurate draftsmanship. The flamingo’s silhouette emphasizes the elegant curve of its body, even as the abrupt curve of its neck gives the shocking, momentary impression of a headless bird. The angle of the flamingo’s beak echoes the edge of the rock on which it stands, just as the sharp angle of its front leg echoes the long, sinuous line of its neck. Audubon plays up the flamingo’s trademark shade of pink by setting the bird against a background that appears, in comparison, drained of color.
Like other American artists who sought to record the unspoiled wilderness, Audubon recognized that much of the wildlife he portrayed was bound to vanish as civilization pushed westward. He himself had first encountered a flock of American flamingos in May
1832, while sailing from the Florida Keys. By the end of the nineteenth century, the birds had retreated to the southernmost point of Florida, and today can be seen in North America only in captivity.
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