This weblog began as First Things’ art page, so to speak. Yet I have a hazy suspicion that you are not all that interested in art. Certainly not art in the lower case. Upper case Art, yes; ART in ten point caps, yes. Art as a cover for theological and philosophical reflection, or flights of creative writing, yes, yes. Then there is art as Exhibit A in the case against contemporary culture. That is always fun. But art as the work of a hand and an eye? Not so much.
It is a great loss.
But one thing cannot wait any longer. Before it is too late, let me satisfy a nagging ache to post John James Audubon’s glorious study for his print of a Great Blue Heron. It is on view until September 7th at the Morgan Library in A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.
John James Audubon. Study for Great Blue Heron. New York Historical Society, NY.
In the main, Romantic landscapes tire me. My foot worries the accelerator going past idylls, sententious ruins, and visionary sunsets. The pastoral mood is as alien to me as obligatory appreciation. This exhibition drew me in simply to see what was on show by Samuel Palmer, a British painter and etcher highly admired in the Victorian era but neglected since.
My heart stopped in front of the Audubon. I had not expected to see it. In the instant of meeting it, everything else—Palmer, too—fell away. Here is the genius of Audubon fully realized in this stunning composition. It is an exquisite conversation between meticulous observation and pure invention. In abstract terms, the image is a masterpiece—no other word will do—of graphic beauty and virtuosic design.
The Italian word disegno, common in Renaissance texts, makes no distinction between drawing and composition. The character of line itself and the rhythmic patterning of its placement on the page is understood as a unit, the single yield of a seeing hand. Audubon, largely self-taught, was gifted with such a hand.
Any standing figure—bird or man, no matter—carries the burden of stasis. But Audubon’s heron is infused with a dynamic sense of movement and immediacy. The scene gives the illusion of having been captured in the moment. Look at the tilt of the bird’s body and the arc of those wings. The bird is standing solidly on the ground poised to make a lethal strike at food. Yet the lift and billow of the wings suggests flight, as if the feet had descended to grab rock while the body was still partially alight.
That double-winged congruence, so suggestive of the bird’s aerodynamic fluency, is an imaginative device that Audubon used in other compositions. He understood that verisimilitude, untransfigured by a fertilizing intelligence, is not enough to breathe life into a subject.
The crisp silhouette of the heron’s upraised left wing echoes the curvature of its neck. The straight line of the avian leg angles in harmony with the double lines of the open beak. Marsh grass bends gently in the direction of the leg’s medial joint. Throughout, crescents and lines sing in counterpoint with each other. So much calculation; such superb illusion of spontaneous nature.
Field naturalist that he was, Audubon puts the viewer on eye level with the heron. We are there in the mire, witness to a predator intent on prey. Alert with energy, the down on the bird’s neck signals the excitement of the hunt. It would be unwise to get closer. The marsh is his, not ours.
Running through the world’s long history of bird painting is use of a bird as symbol of the soul, the Holy Ghost of things. Audubon’s birds, kissed with life, have souls of their own.
Note: The Morgan bills the image, accurately, as a study. But the word study is misleading here. This is a fully realized painting in an arresting range of techniques: pastel, watercolor, pencil, oil paint, and gouache. Even a bit of collage appears in an effort to correct the tip of a single feather. It is a study only in the sense that it was created to be rendered ultimately as a hand-colored print, sent to press in collaboration with Robert Havell, a master of acquatint.
The Havell Edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America is among the most beautiful books ever published.