THE name ``Audubon'' is today closely associated with environmental protection. And that fits, says Theodore Stebbins, co-curator of an extensive exhibit of John James Audubon's original watercolors at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The artist loved his subjects, Mr. Stebbins says, and understood, even in the early 19th century, the fragility of the habitats that support bird species.
Audubon's essays noted the changes he observed as he trekked through a sparsely populated continent collecting specimens. He recognized the destruction already being wrought by egg hunters and poachers, according to Stebbins. ``He had a definite sense that the species were diminishing.''
The 90 paintings on exhibit in Boston belong to the New York Historical Society, which purchased them in 1863 from Audubon's widow. They include many now-extinct species, such as the Carolina parakeet, the only parrot native to North America, and the passenger pigeon, whose numbers plunged from billions in Audubon's day to extinction in 1914.
Audubon was in his late teens when came to America from the West Indies in 1803. The illegitimate son of a French sea captain, he was sent to oversee a small estate his father owned near Philadelphia. Audubon married and soon set out with his wife and two small sons to try his hand at managing a dry-goods business in Kentucky. When that enterprise failed, he decided to combine two great loves - art and nature - into a career.
AUDUBON conceived the goal of compiling an exhaustive collection of prints of North America's birds, life-size, that could be sold by subscription. The idea found few takers on this side of the Atlantic, but European art fanciers embraced both the artist's now very American quirkiness - he wore buckskins and slicked his long hair with bear grease - and his obvious talent. Audubon eventually settled on a London printer to produce his collection, which would take 12 years of intensive effort to complete.
His trips in pursuit of his goal ranged from Louisiana to Labrador, and the work was meticulous. Photography was not an option, so specimens had to be shot and examined in detail, down to the contents of their stomachs. Audubon was determined to understand a bird's habits and diet. He might have as little as two days to do his research and complete a painting before the specimen deteriorated. The paintings typically show birds in their natural habitat, often in the act of catching and eating their prey, from insects to rabbits.
As an ornithologist and as a painter, Audubon was almost entirely self-taught. He once wrote: ``I know I am not a scholar, but meantime I am aware that no man living knows better than I do the habits of our birds; no man living has studied them as much as I have done.''
The paintings bear that out. Their dramatic realism was a radical departure from earlier ornithological illustration. Audubon was ``a romantic, who portrayed nature in all its beauty and cruelty,'' Stebbins says. He saw character and nobility in the creatures he studied and portrayed - as in a scene of thrashers defending their nest against a marauding snake. His work anticipated later American naturalistic art, such as the landscapes of Hudson River School painters.
Audubon was also a precursor of abstract modern art, Stebbins says. ``There's a great spareness about his compositions,'' the co-curator says, pointing to the lithe, white image of a great egret set against the turgid darkness of a cloudy night sky. Many paintings are reminiscent of Asian art in their cleanness of design.
While watercolor was Audubon's primary medium for creating the works that would later be reproduced as prints, he employed whatever means necessary to achieve a desired effect. ``He used pencil to add iridescence to the wings and to add detail,'' explains Annette Blaugrund, senior curator of paintings, drawings, and sculpture at the New York Historical Society and co-curator with Stebbins of the Audubon exhibit. He also used pen and ink, along with pastels, glazes, gouache, and oil paints in the background scenes.
``He was one of the first masters of collage,'' Ms. Blaugrund says, noting that Audubon often assembled his works in layers, putting the bird images on backgrounds painted by assistants. Details like frogs or insects might be added by collage.
Up-close examination of the the original watercolors gives insights into Audubon's work that reproductions of the prints - brilliant as they are - could never match, Stebbins and Blaugrund say. They say they hope the current traveling exhibit - a rare public viewing of Audubon's artistry - will stimulate fresh thinking about his place as a preeminent American painter.
At the same time, the exhibit is a visual delight, and a thought-provoking experience, for anyone who cares about nature. After its stint in Boston through April 10, the show moves to the Art Institute of Chicago and from there to Detroit, Houston, Memphis, Tenn., New York, Seattle, and San Francisco.