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Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

Avian Obsession

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Anyone who's examined The Birds of America, a seminal ornithological compendium published between 1827 and 1838 by the artist/naturalist John James Audubon, will wonder what impelled him to create life-sized illustrations of every species of bird in North America. Birds from the swamps of the Mississippi Valley, the forests of Ohio and the coast of South Carolina were lovingly captured in exquisite detail by Audubon's deft and precise brush strokes. Readers will discern a desire to do more than simply illustrate a species in the majestic profiles of bald eagles, the fierce expressions of hook-beaked duck hawks disturbed while feasting, the romantic portrayal of a mourning dove craning her neck gracefully toward her hungry chicks and the sight of a hummingbird starting back from the gaping mouth of a snake. Audubon's birds seemed to be caught conversing with one another, and their dramatic portrayals speak of a fascination with avian lifestyles and habitats.

In RichardRhodes' 2004 biography, John James Audubon:The Making of an American, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of TheMaking of the Atomic Bomb and the more recent Arsenals of Folly expended the same kind of energy on investigating his subject as Audubon devoted to his birds. And, like Audubon, he went further than creating a faithful portrait of his subject. Instead, he set about unearthing the driving force behind the artist's obsessive undertaking. Using Audubon's diaries, letters and anecdotal evidence, Rhodes went about piecing together his subject's life, charting his struggle against economic difficulties and his commitment to artistic and naturalistic pursuits-as well as the darkly humorous episodes that accompanied them. He paints a portrait of a flawed but compelling figure, emblematic in many respects of the American pioneering spirit, the product of an age where the boundaries between art and science weren't as sharply delineated as they are today.

Rhodes will lecture on Audubon's work in conjunction with the Milwaukee Art Museum's current exhibition "Catesby, Audubon and the Discovery of a New World," which runs through March 22. The lecture takes place in the Lubar Auditorium on Jan. 22 at 6:15 p.m. and is followed by a reception and book signing in the Baumgartner Galleria. The lecture is free with museum admission.