Museum of Fine Arts Pairs Audubon’s Birds with Words

Friends and family have alerted me to another Audubon exhibition, this one at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The exhibit, which opened in July and runs through May 11, 2014, is unusual in that it highlights Audubon’s writing in addition to his well-known art. According to the Musuem website the exhibition, “features prints from the MFA’s copy of The Birds of America and some smaller works by Audubon. The artist was also a gifted writer, and the exhibition pairs his birds with his words, offering insight into Audubon’s methods, obsessions, and the trials associated with his giant project.”

This is a great opportunity for visitors to expose themselves to an often overlooked treasure, Audubon’s writing, which has much of interest independent of his art. Reading his accounts of various species, you can learn much about Audubon’s life and his attitudes both towards family, his readers, and his peer group of ornithologists and other naturalists. In addition, one is privy to his direct observations of the natural world.

My own feeling from reading Audubon’s work is that people of his time had a visceral closeness to nature that most of us, living in urban or suburban settings, can only wonder at. When Audubon considers a bird, he considers it simultaneously as a creature that pursues an independent life and as a creature that he may be able to use, often as food but also as entertainment or as a source of scientific knowledge or artistic satisfaction. Many times he will describe himself or an acquaintance essentially “adopting” a wild bird or animal into his household in order to observe it. For example, after a visit to Florida, Audubon brought several live Great White Herons (a morph of the Great Blue Heron) to Charleston SC. He gave two of these birds to his good friend and collaborator the Reverend John Bachman.

PL 368 Great White Heron from the first octavo edition of Audubon's Birds of America

PL 368 Great White Heron from the first octavo edition of Audubon's Birds of America

Audubon writes, “My friend BACHMAN kept [the birds] for many months; but it was difficult for him to procure fish enough for them, as they swallowed a bucketful of mullets in a few minutes, each devouring about a gallon of these fishes. They betook themselves to roosting in a beautiful arbour in his garden; where at night they looked with their pure white plumage like beings of another world….In the evening or early in the morning, they would frequently set, like pointer dogs, at moths which hovered over the flowers, and with a well-directed stroke of their bill seize the fluttering insect and instantly swallow it. On many occasions, they also struck at chickens, grown fowls and ducks, which they would tear up and devour. Once a cat which was asleep in the sunshine, on the wooden steps of the viranda, was pinned through the body to the boards and killed by one of them. At last they began to pursue the younger children of my worthy friend, who therefore ordered them to be killed.”

Among upcoming events potential visitors to the Boston exhibition may wish to note are hour-long gallery talks by Benjamin Weiss, the exhibition curator, at the MFA’s Sharf Visitor Center at noon on October 26 and at 1pm on December 19, 2013. Here is a brief video in which Benjamin Weiss discusses the exhibition and the idea of pairing Audubon’s writing with the art:

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