Last fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Jessica Harper writes about the 1847 hand-colored lithograph, Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse, by John Woodhouse Audubon.
When thinking of the animals in America during the mid-1800s, the name John James Audubon is the first thing to come to mind. Audubon was not the first to attempt to catalog America’s creatures, but he is the most well-known. Audubon was famous during his time for his scientific books like The Birds of America (1827) and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1847). These collections of works done by Audubon were extremely popular at the time and are still treasured today, as the piece in the OSU Museum of Art makes evident. Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse, from the Viviparous Quadrupeds, can be used to tell some very important concepts about American identity, history, culture and value.
John James Audubon was not originally from America, but his story does demonstrate some common values of American people. As demonstrated in many of the paintings we have seen, immigrants and their descendants colonized the land to make a place for themselves, a home (for example, Fanny Palmer’s Across the Continent). In America, a foundational value is that you can create a life for yourself—all you have to do is work hard. This isn’t the case for everyone in reality, but for Audubon it was. He was born in Haiti, the son of a French sailor who left him to be raised by his stepmother. He later came to America to avoid being sent to the French army. Once in America, he tried his hand at many things and failed, going bankrupt at one point and being thrown in jail, afterwards having to leave his town. He left his family to try and make a living doing work on the river, collecting and drawing many species of birds. Those drawings became The Birds of America, with which he finally hit his big break. It became extremely popular in London, where he had found someone to print it. He returned to his family, with whom he later moved to New York. Audubon worked diligently and was eventually rewarded; this is the idea behind America for many immigrants. They can come to America and make a better life for their families.
Birds of America was so popular that Audubon succeeded it with his second book, which addressed mammals in America. Audubon was not able to complete the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America due to illness, but his son continued in his footsteps and finished the large book, which included 150 species. John Woodhouse Audubon was actually the one who completed this illustration of the Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse. Despite this slight change in authorship, the book was still widely popular. Becoming educated in fields like science and art was increasing in popularity during these times. The American Association of Medicine was founded during this time, and the first natural history museum was created only a few years earlier. In Charles Willson Peale’s painting, The Artist in His Museum, he shows the first natural history museum in America with many diverse specimens to see. Audubon’s books were almost like portable versions of a natural history museum for those who could not go to one.
People were beginning to find value in knowledge and scientific exploration of the land they have claimed. However, they were not the only people who were interested in the unknowns of America. Audubon’s books were first printed and became widely popular in London. Now this may have been due to more availability of printmaking in London, but also may have been partially because of the curiosity of British people about America. Prints and books made learning about these organisms and the land much easier. Not only do the books show the different animals that you could actually encounter in America, but you can also see different kinds of environments and landscapes that are possible in America through them.
At the same time, America was viewed as an untamable wilderness by many, especially those who did not live here. Audubon’s descriptions of wild animals only help to enhance this message to outsiders. Not only are the animals depicted in his books often not seen commonly in other areas of the world; but also the images do not show any sign of human interference. Europe was seen as full of people, whereas America was envisioned as almost lacking human inhabitants. During this time people tended to focus on the land and its wild natural beauty. Euro-American artists and poets like William Cullen Bryant admired these natural aspects of America, and completely ignored the existence of any other inhabitants (Native Americans) of this land. They often showed the land as ripe for the taking with no obstacles, enhancing the idea of Manifest Destiny. Audubon does the same thing. He may not be ignoring the inhabitants of the land for the same reasons, but nevertheless, there is no sign that there are any people in his scientific illustrations, other than the creatures he is illustrating. The habitats of the animals do not show any presence of people or manmade structures. He is illustrating the wild and untamable creatures of America and strengthening the message that America is a vast wilderness. Though many saw the wilderness as a challenge to be conquered, Audubon was concerned about conservation, and did voice his concern about the elimination of bird habitats and the negative effects this had on the creatures.
Love and curiosity toward nature is how Audubon originally started illustrating the many species of birds in North America. He studied birds during his youth and would draw them as a hobby. When hard times befell him, he used this interest and skill to create his first book, Birds of America. When his book became extremely popular, it became clear who Audubon’s audience was. Like many during previous times, his audience was wealthy, educated individuals. Though prints made art more accessible to the general public, the text included in Audubon’s books was not designed for leisure reading for the less educated. These illustrations were made to be commissioned for educational purposes. This fact explains many aspects of Audubon’s paintings.
Audubon made his scientific illustrations very thorough, including many concepts that were important to an animal and its survival. The amount of detail he put in his paintings was not simply to show his skill, but to realistically depict these creatures. The goal of scientific illustrations is to allow for education on a creature without actually needing the creature to be present. This was the goal of Audubon’s illustrations; the audience should feel as if they are actually watching the creature in its original habitat. Many of the illustrations he completed were done in a way to be the actual scale of the creature. The habitats that he placed these creatures in were also supposed to be educational. The background illustrated with the animal was not simply artistically appealing, but was made to be an accurate depiction of the habitat in which the animals lived. Many of the creatures can even be seen with specific types of food that they would consume. All of these aspects are included in the pictures because they were important parts of the organism’s lifestyle. These illustrations were not only made to be appealing to the eyes, but were made to tell a story of an organism and the environment in which it survives.
Audubon did not have the privileged life of some; he worked and failed before finally accomplishing something that was capable of stabilizing his life in America. However, he was still able to make his life into something great through his eventual successes. He demonstrates the values of dedication and strength held by many early Americans—the idea that hard work will lead to success in the future. Though this was not often the case, it was still a common dream held by the people. At the same time, his art work, and that of his son following in his footsteps, demonstrates the untamable nature of America that has so many, including foreigners, entranced. The Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse shows only the wild, natural side of America and the creatures that one might encounter. Many people during this time were interested in enjoying the world around them and learning about it and Audubon helped make that possible.
Chowder, Ken. “Drawn from Nature.” PBS, 25 July 2007.
“John James Audubon.” Audubon. National Audubon Society, 14 Sept. 2015.
Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.