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Audubon’s Little Ruff-necks

This coming spring, we will have what may be for many of us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see more than 100 of the watercolors John James Audubon prepared for his Birds of America, the original art from which the plates of that most famous of American picture books were engraved. In 1863, Lucy Audubon, impoverished to the point of desperation, sold all 435 of her late husband’s works to the New-York Historical Society. Beginning in 2013, these monuments of early American natural history and art have been exhibited in three installments, the last of which will hang from March 6 to May 10, 2015, in New York.

Audubon on his return from the Missouri

Among the paintings to be exhibited next year is the original of Plate 379, the ruff-necked hummingbird—a species we now know as the rufous hummingbird, the ABA 2014 Bird of the Year. Contrary to the claim made in the caption of the published plate—“Drawn from Nature by J.J. Audubon F.R.S. F.L.S.”—most of this watercolor, produced in Charleston in late 1836 or 1837, was the work of another artist, Audubon’s “amiable friend” Maria Martin, the sister-in-law and later the wife of John Bachman. Both the hummingbird nest and the attractive cleome beeplant were “figured” by Martin, while Audubon’s own contribution comprised only the three birds, two males feeding acrobatically at the flowers and a quizzical female perched on the edge of her nest.

Audubon, Birds of America 379, rufous hummingbird

In addition to their aura of authenticity and originality, many of Audubon’s watercolors preserve the artist’s notes, to himself, his publishers, and his collaborators. The hummingbird painting is annotated with instructions to the engraver:

Mr Havell will please to place the lower portion of the nest at point a marked above and take off the leaf now there—this will make the plate less, and [make] for a better calm position,

a direction Havell entirely ignored in engraving the plate for publication.

A close look at the penciled notations also reveals Audubon’s efforts to determine the correct nomenclature for a bird still so little known. As if reminding himself to look, he cites John Latham’s account of the ruff-necked hummingbird in the General Synopsis, and considers—then crosses out—two alternative names, “ruffed humming bird” and “Nootka Sound humming bird.” Finally, he turns the whole matter over to one of his sons:

Victor must look in Swainson & Richardon’s Fauna borealis—for the name both English & Latin given to this bird.

Dutiful Victor Audubon most likely did look it up, but in his published works, the elder Audubon preferred Latham’s common name “ruff-necked” to Swainson’s “cinnamon, or Nootka humming-bird.” We can only guess how much that decision owed to the personal bitterness that had arisen between Audubon and his on-again-off-forever friend.

Similar notes and queries adorn most of the paintings in the exhibition. Come see them for yourself—and get a first-hand look into the creation of a classic of American natural history.

 

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