Snowy Heron or White Egret
by JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (American School)
THE eminence of Audubon in American art and his place in the affections of
the American people have never been more secure than at the present time.
The man has become a national hero, a legendary figure beloved alike by
conservationists of wild life and a troubled generation seeking inspiration in
examples of pioneer fortitude,
The legend, in part, is Audubon’s creation: he
had a talent for self-dramatization, carried a dagger into the wilderness, wore
long hair, and in the literary circles of Europe posed as an esthetic Leather
stocking with the instincts of a
Red Indian and the cultivation of a French aris
tocrat, Only recently has it come to light that he was not born in New Orleans
of high lineage, as he led people to believe, but in Santo Domingo, the illegiti
mate son of a French naval officer and a nameless Creole mistress.
But his romantic peccadilloes detract nothing from his greatness. As a young
man, Audubon voyaged down the Great River, and explored the forests of
Ohio, the swamps of Louisiana, and the coasts of Carolina, with the gleaming
intensity of conviction of the early French missionaries.
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The adventures were
incidental to his purpose: he was a man with a mission, actuated by a religious
zeal to immortalize in graphic form the feathered life of America. From paint
ings in water color, he published in London, during the years 1827-1838, the
original edition of
The Birds of America, 435 hand-colored impressions from
aquatint engravings, the most remarkable work of its kind in existence.
Audubon was an artist and a great one. As a painter of birds, he fixed a
standard that has never been seriously contested, his most reverent emulators
being no more than taxidermists.
It is comforting to know that his pictures are
ornithologically accurate, but of more significance that he brought to his birds
the imagination of a poet and the hand of an artist trained in the studio of
David. He had an eye for dramatic situations,
an infallible sense of place
ment, and an originality of design determined, in each instance, by the in
dividuality and habitat of his subjects. The Snowy Heron, one of the noblest
specimens of his art, was painted from drawings made in the rice fields of
South Carolina, in 1831.
The bird is true to its species, but it is a bird with
personality, a portrait of a particular heron, imposingly oversize, by the
artist’s license-e-a startling creature in a Southern landscape painted through
out with a clarity of detail which was one of Audubon’s devices to point out
the natural environment of his subjects.