American Buzzard or White Breasted Hawk . . . Falco Leverianus
Pastel, graphite, chalk, white opaque watercolor on medium weight wove [J. Whatman] paper
Purchased through the Katharine T. and Merrill G. Beede 1929 Fund and the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W'18 Fund; D.2003.52
John James Audubon, widely acclaimed as America’s most innovative and influential artist-naturalist, drew this work before he undertook his famous illustrated publication The Birds of America (1826-38). This double-elephant folio of 435 handcolored prints after Audubon’s original watercolors and drawings is one of the great achievements of American art and natural science. Although self-taught as a naturalist, Audubon’s extended, direct experience in the wilds afforded him an intimate understanding of ornithological behavior that in many ways surpassed the dry, taxonomic approach of more learned scientists and artist-naturalists. This image, inscribed “drawn from Life . . . at Henderson K.Y.,” actually depicts a juvenile red-tailed hawk, not a new species as Audubon had thought when he titled it American Buzzard. The life-size work already exhibits his naturalistic approach to rendering birds. Here the hawk stretches its neck down and forward, opens its beak as if ready to feed, and lifts the leg that clasps its faintly drawn prey. The incomplete drawing of the small bird in the hawk’s grasp shows us how Audubon began all of his drawings by “outlining” his subjects in graphite. He then used a variety of marks in pastel and graphite—his primary media until he switched predominantly to watercolor about 1821—to build up the forms and create the varied colors and textures of the plumage. He highlighted the legs with opaque white watercolor, which he then articulated with graphite to simulate their scaly texture. Through his close observation and complex technique, Audubon finessed a bold image of stunning realism that exemplifies his vital contributions to the fields of both science and art.
Last Updated: 5/6/09