Opinion  June 17, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: John James Audubon’s “Eagle”

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Dr. S. Dillon Ripley II and Mary Livingston Ripley.

John James Audubon, detail of Washington Sea Eagle. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The June 2021 Focus for Reframed is Animals in Art.

Eagles and George Washington have for centuries been mainstream symbols of the United States, and the nation’s unique contributions to science, culture, and the stalwart pursuit of truth.

Such symbolism was not lost on the ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851), recognized in his time and still today as the scientific researcher and artist of the wildly popular Birds of America, the book featuring detailed and colorful illustrations of birds throughout the nation printed between 1827 and 1838.

Along with many if not most Americans familiar with Audubon and his eponymous society, before writing this week’s column, I took in each and every image as scientifically accurate, including Audubon’s iconic Washington Sea Eagle, also known as The Bird of Washington, which hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Dr. S. Dillon Ripley II and Mary Livingston Ripley.

John James Audubon, Washington Sea Eagle. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Dismayed then, I was, to learn that, scientifically speaking, not only was the Bird of Washington wildly scientifically inaccurate, but Audubon knew it to be so at the time that it was created, according to modern scientific research.

As ornithologist and Drexel University graduate student Matthew R. Halley has noted in his multi-year, peer-reviewed, and published study—the “preponderance of evidence suggests that the Bird of Washington was an elaborate lie that Audubon concocted” to advance his own career and fortunes.

The works on paper are indeed fantastic, gorgeous artworks, each bird being shown with a unique personality in painstakingly vibrant ink that, as the Smithsonian Institute’s curator Eleanor Harvey notes to Art & Object, was an “extraordinarily expensive production.”

Harvey deliberately hung the piece within sight of Gilbert Stuart’s famed portrait of Washington. “I can't help but notice they have similar beaks. Well, noses. In other words, they both have a hooked 'nose' profile,” she tells Art & Object adding, “it’s just one way Audubon reinforced the symbolic connection between the bird and its namesake.”

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Dr. S. Dillon Ripley II and Mary Livingston Ripley.

John James Audubon, detail of beak in Washington Sea Eagle. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Audubon created the oil painting of the eagle, featured in this column, from 1836 to 1839, based on a work on paper of Eagle published in Birds of America.

Audubon, as Harvey notes, “was especially vested in the Washington Sea Eagle as a patriotic emblem and a metaphor.”

The background of Eagle is imbued with symbolism. The artwork’s ship is an ode to Washington’s career as a sailor. Famously known at the time that Audubon created EagleWashington picked up the French minister to the United States on September 15, 1779, in a sailboat from a meeting at West Point, and Audubon’s ship was a purely symbolic nod to this, notes the curator Harvey.

Yet as Halley’s study mentioned above reveals, the artist-cum-scientist “fabricated data” in creating Eagle. It was, "so effective," notes Halley to Art & Object, "that neither historians nor scientists alone, working in isolation, were able to figure out the scam, despite more than a century of various Audubon scholarship." Only modern cross-departmental research into both science and art history was able to reveal the truth.

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Dr. S. Dillon Ripley II and Mary Livingston Ripley. 

John James Audubon, detail of boat in Washington Eagle. Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

As discussed in last week’s column on Eadweard Muybridge’s Bouquet Galloping, artworks genuinely intended to be scientific illustrations are often proved inaccurate through scientific advances. Yet Halley’s demonstrates that Audubon willfully misled the scientific and artistic communities and, with Eagle often still continues to do so.

Audubon alleged in 1814 to have seen the gigantic eagle that he named after General and President George Washington (1732-1799), flying along the Mississippi River. Audubon apparently shot one of these eagles after that first sighting, to better study it. Proof of this, however, has never been found and Halley’s research argues that the Washington Eagle is not a real ornithological specimen, but a product of Audubon’s imagination.

The question then arises, can viewers enjoy, even revel in symbolic, stunningly painted artworks purporting to be scientifically accurate when they are deliberately painted as scientifically inaccurate?

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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