Tag Archives: American artists

John James Audubon

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My husband and I love to visit the Japanese Garden in Fort Worth. Its paths wind around flowering trees that stand out against all the different greens of spring. 20131118_105544A bridge arches over water that gathers in calm pools in some places and in others laps around stepping stones or tumbles over rocks. 20131118_111612All along its path the water reflects overhanging branches, and in the fall paddling wood ducks swirl the colors into ever-changing patterns.

We also look forward to seeing the garden’s resident large heron. We never know where he’ll be–sometimes he stalks along the water’s edge. 20131118_111631One time we almost missed him because he was perched motionless on the lower branch of a tree. Recently he was poised perfectly still at the water’s edge, SAM_2258ready to strike like lightening on any passing morsel of food. We’ve seen him flap into the air, then with his great wings outstretched, glide soundlessly to a new fishing spot.

Background

John James Audubon

John James Audubon

John James Audubon would have loved to study the ducks and that heron. He was a naturalist and artist who came from France in 1803 at the age of 18 to live in the United States. He loved to explore the countryside and study and sketch animals, especially birds. He spent hours observing their habits, even spending a night inside a huge hollow tree so he could observe and count the thousands of swifts that roosted inside. Before modern-day banding was thought of, Audubon tied threads around bird’s legs to see if they came back to the same nesting spots each year.

Eventually Audubon moved to Kentucky to open a store on what was then the frontier. From Native Americans he learned how to survive in the wilderness, and he continued to spend long periods in the forest, studying, sketching, and gathering specimens. Since European ornithological books didn’t contain many American bird species, Audubon decided to publish his.

No one in this country was willing to publish his work, so he went to England. Finding no publisher there either, he engaged a printer and financed the project by selling subscriptions to the book, which came out in folios of 5 prints at a time. To print color illustrations at that time each of Audubon’s original watercolor paintings had to be incised on a copper plate by an engraver, printed, and then hand-painted. Audubon wanted his birds to be as close to life-size as possible, so they were printed on sheets of paper that were over 2 feet by 4 feet—called an elephant folio.

Wealthy patrons, including the queen of England and the king of France, bought subscriptions. At that time, the whole book of 435 engravings cost about $1,000. In 2000, with only about 100 of the original 176 complete books left, mostly in museums or libraries, one sold at auction for $8.8 million.

The Paintings

Most paintings of birds before this time were very stiff. They were drawn from stuffed specimens, and they looked it. Audubon’s early drawings were also stiff, but gradually as he studied the birds and practiced drawing and painting, he began to paint birds in much more natural poses, with plants from the bird’s habitat. His paintings are very true to nature, but they are also well-designed artistically.

The purpose of an ornithology book is, of course, to portray the birds accurately. Audubon never loses sight of that purpose; yet his arrangement or composition of birds and plants is creative. Take these Carolina parakeets. Audubon 15 CarolinaParakeet2As required for a field guide, we can see their beaks, their feet, and their markings from every angle, but notice the top and bottom birds, which are almost mirror images of each other. The outspread wings and tails of these two birds stand out against the paper and frame the other parakeets. The bottom bird is especially dramatic and looks as if it might fly right at us. The other birds spiral up in a backwards S-shape, implying movement and making us able to imagine them flitting from branch to branch as they chatter and eat.

These ivory billed woodpeckers audubon 4 ivory-billed woodpeckerare less colorful, but Audubon has displayed them artistically so that the white and black on their bodies and their black tails form dramatic patterns against the white page. The red patch on the middle bird is striking and draws you into the scene.

Many of Audubon’s paintings have a lot of drama. For example, in his observations, Audubon had once seen a snake invade a brown thrasher nest for its eggs, and he depicts the ferocious battle that followed—creating a true and yet very dramatic picture. audubon 10 brown thrasherWith a wonderful sense of design, Audubon painted the snake twisting up through the branches, its black body contrasting with the eggs and lighter birds. This leads you to the focal point where two birds confront the snake. One guards the nest, while the other, with outspread wings showing its rich reddish brown coloring, swoops down to attack the snake. Their heads and the snake’s stand out against the plain paper.

Audubon wanted even the largest birds to be shown almost life-size, and fitting them on a page often produced some very modern-looking graphic designs. Look at the trumpeter swan—this mostly white shape almost filling the page could make pretty dull viewing, but the up-curving neck stands out against the blues of sky and water and gets your attention. Then, as the neck and head stretch across the body, its bright black eye and black bill break up that large white shape and bring out the swan’s grace. Audubon 7 trumpeter swan

Devotion

When I teach drawing I emphasize that training the eye is as important as training the hand. For this purpose I give my students exercises that artists have long used to help them look more carefully—negative space, breaking down the whole into basic geometric shapes, and contour drawing, etc. Children and adults are often amazed what a difference learning to see makes in their drawing.

But it’s hard to get people to slow down long enough to really look. One of my favorite lessons to help young children do this starts with the verse, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matt. 6:26

When I ask what birds eat. Hands shoot up, “Seeds! Worms! Insects!”

“Okay,” I say. “And does God just sprinkle these things down for the birds the way we sprinkle food at the top of a fish tank?”

Most say, “No!” So we look at Psalm 111:2 that says, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” And I tell the children that we are going to use our “artist’s eyes” to “study” how God has designed each bird with just the right beak, feet, body, tail, and wings to be able to gather its food in the environment that He designed for it. We see that all birds have legs but… God gave flamingos long skinny legs to wade in shallow water where their food lives and ducks short legs and webbed feet to paddle in deeper water. All birds have beaks, but… God gave hummingbirds long sharp beaks to reach into flowers to sip nectar and cardinals short thick beaks to pluck and crunch seeds and fruit.

In my blog post on The Country School I compared the flipper-like wings God gave penguins so they can “fly” under the water to the huge wings He gave pelicans so they can skim above the waves.

In Matthew 6:26-34 Jesus used God’s care of the birds to teach that our heavenly Father knows our needs and provides for us as He does the birds, so we can trust Him and seek His kingdom first. And surely part of seeking His kingdom is recognizing the beauty and intricacy of creation and giving glory to the One who made and sustains it all. Too often we are in a hurry and don’t see wildflowers blooming along the side of the road or the birds flying around our yards gobbling up insects and gathering material for nests.

Take time to see the work of the first and best Artist! How many different types of birds share your backyard? Notice the patterns on their wings. Is their beak made for seeds or worms? Take time to look inside a day lily and see how the colors change or at a wild flower and see how often God uses complementary colors—such as blue and orange or lavender and yellow to make these flowers more vibrant and attractive to us and the insects that pollinate them.

Try using basic shapes and curvy or straight lines to draw some of these birds. Most of the birds illustrated above have roundish heads and oval bodies, so you start there, but as you look closer, you see you need to add some straight lines to the top of the woodpecker’s head for those funny tufts. And while you need short, curving lines for the parakeet’s beak, longer, less curving lines depict the brown thrasher’s beak. The more you look, the more you see God’s wonderful design and diversity!

In the Middle Ages Francis of Assisi (in Italy) began to spend much time out in the countryside praying and appreciating the beauties of creation. He and his followers began to use illustrations from nature, as Jesus did, to preach and minister God’s love and care to people. Summer is a great time to cultivate yours and your family’s “artist’s eyes” to more fully see and appreciate the creative design and care that God has lavished on all of His creation!

And to see more of Audubon’s work that shows so much of that beauty and diversity, you just need to go online or visit your local library. His beautiful bird illustrations are readily accessible.

On another note, be sure to sign up to receive the next picture lady post so you don’t miss it!

All images in this post are used for educational purposes only.

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The Hudson River School Paintings

For me, the hardest part of winters in the Northeast wasn’t the cold and snow, but the short days. By November it is dark by 4:30, and I found that depressing. By January, even though it’s often colder and snowier, I happily counted up a few more minutes of daylight each week. Living now in Texas, I don’t think about it as much, but a friend’s recent facebook post celebrating the longer days reminded me how much many of us appreciate light.

Sunset Over the Catskills, John Kensett

Sunset Over the Catskills, John Kensett

When it comes to art and light, many people think of the Impressionists, but there was a group of artists before them who used light in a uniquely Christian way. They were the Hudson River School artists, America’s first major homegrown artistic movement. Used in this way, “school” means a group of artists who paint in a similar way. They often know each other, paint in many of the same areas, share ideas and techniques, and exhibit together. (We could, just as correctly, say the Impressionist School)

Background
As with many names for artistic movements, the term “Hudson River School” was first used in a derogatory way as new art movements from France (such as the Impressionists) were coming into vogue near the end of the 1800s. But the Hudson River School is being rediscovered and the term is now used in a positive way.

It all began in 1825 when the artist, Thomas Cole, took a sketching and painting trip north on the Hudson River, which flows through the Adirondack and Catskill mountains south to the Atlantic in eastern New York. The resulting paintings made Cole famous.
From that small beginning, several generations of landscape artists, (about 40 men and a few women) hiking in Cole’s footsteps, painted landscapes in a similar style throughout the 1800s. Some of them grew up in the Hudson River area, and painted landscapes in that region. They often hiked along rivers and in the mountains, encouraging each other to do direct observations of nature and to make detailed sketches of what they saw. Many of their sketchbooks still exist.

Mount Washington, John Kensett

Mount Washington, John Kensett

They also went east to paint the valleys and mountains of New England, where Jasper Cropsey became a master at painting the bright colors of a New England autumn. Eventually some traveled even farther, as did Frederick Church, to the Middle East, South America, and the Arctic. Albert Bierstadt is famous for his paintings of the American West. He traveled with exploratory expeditions and helped make the West better known back East. But no matter how far they traveled, most returned to build their homes and studios along the shores of the Hudson.

Olana

Olana

Hudson River from Olana

Hudson River from Olana

 

Olana, built by Frederick Church, is an example of these. The house, its grounds, and view of the Hudson are worth a visit.

The Paintings

The Oxbow, Thomas Cole

The Oxbow, Thomas Cole

Let’s look at the things that are common to most of these landscapes. Since Cole was the school’s founder, a painting by him, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts—The Oxbow, can help illustrate common themes and techniques. It shows a wide, panoramic view of a river, distant mountains, and lots of sky. A river or a winding path often invites you to “walk” into the painting, and along the way you see lots of realistic details of plants, rocks, and trees. Unlike the Impressionists, who used light to dissolve outlines, the Hudson River School artists used light to reveal the form of things. You don’t have to step back to get things in focus with these paintings, but you might want to, so you can appreciate the view!

In many of these landscapes there will be a few people and/or animals somewhere in the foreground (often with touches of red, of course!). But figures and buildings are small or even absent, because Hudson River artists were critical of the man-centeredness of much art. They wanted instead to show man’s need of God. Those shown are everyday Americans or Native Americans, not mythological figures, and they are sometimes shown hiking or resting, because getting away to enjoy nature was believed to be good for people. Today we would agree, but often only think of the physical benefits. In the 1800s many believed that the spiritual benefits were even more important.

In this painting Cole is, himself, in the foreground painting. (Artists have always liked to put themselves in their paintings, and they especially like to paint themselves painting!). You may also notice his umbrella.

In Hudson River School paintings you’ll see contrasts: storm clouds and wilderness on one side, pastoral peace and clear skies on the other; a dead or storm-damaged tree next to one that is flourishing; and carefully-rendered detail in the foreground, opening up, depth after depth into vast distances that take us beyond this world to the heavens.

SAM_1375Above all else, the thing that says you’re looking at a Hudson River School painting, is the way they used light to draw you on into the mountains and beyond. Many of you are familiar with 1-point perspective, where the parallel lines of a road or wall recede at an angle, converging at “one point” on the horizon, and creating the illusion of distance.In a Hudson River School painting all the lines converge at a vanishing point that is lost in light, so it seems as if we can see beyond nature to infinity—to God who created all that beautiful nature. And that’s just what these artists wanted, as shown in their writings. Jasper Cropsey wrote that the sky was a beautiful gift of the Creator and encircled the earth “like a halo.” And John Kensett wrote of the “beautiful harmony in which God has created the universe.”

Here and scattered throughout this post are some paintings by some of the better-known Hudson River artists. See how many of the common themes and devices you can find in each one, but also notice how each artist expressed his own individuality.

Autumn on the Hudson, Jasper Cropsey

Autumn on the Hudson, Jasper Cropsey

Heart of the Andes, Frederick Church

Heart of the Andes, Frederick Church

Yosemite Valley, Albert Bierstadt

Yosemite Valley, Albert Bierstadt

Another, less common, type of painting from this group is of a small private woodland scene, with over-arching trees as in a cathedral. But even these usually open up to a view into distant light.

The Catskills, Asher Durand

The Catskills, Asher Durand

 

Devotion

Many of the Hudson River School artists were Christians

Expulsion from Eden, Thomas Cole

Expulsion from Eden, Thomas Cole

and painted subjects that are obviously Christian in content, such as Cole’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but they also wanted their light-filled landscapes to teach lessons about Christianity. A leading Hudson River School artist, Asher Durand, wrote that nature teaches many “high and holy” lessons, which are “only surpassed by the light of Revelation.” (by “Revelation” he meant God’s Word)

Some of these “high and holy” lessons came from very down-to-earth things. The beauty of the landscapes and the realistic details of foliage, skies, and clouds weren’t just to celebrate nature, but to show God’s glory and power in creation. Mountains were to remind viewers of Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law, and surely of these words from Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

Water was a symbol of rest and of baptism, and the dead tree shows that this world, as beautiful as it looks in these paintings, is darkened and dying due to man’s sin. Some of the artists grew up in the Dutch tradition and were familiar with the use of insects, half-eaten food, or even skulls to show a similar idea in Dutch still lifes.

Most important of all is the light. Hudson River School artists deliberately used light to symbolize many of the major teachings of the Bible. To remind us:

of the Creator, Himself:
“This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.” 1 John 1:5

of His work of creation:
“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep,
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Genesis 1:2-3

of His continuing grace and providential care of His creation:
“The Lord does whatever pleases Him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depth. He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from His storehouses.” Psalm 135:6-7

of His guiding hand as we travel the sometimes dark paths of this world:
“You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.” Psalm 18:28
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

of the light of salvation breaking over the world in the coming of Jesus:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2
“…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” Luke 2:30-32
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:1-4
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” John 8:12

And of the restoration of all things when Jesus returns:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you…. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah 60:1-3
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light…..” Revelation 21:22-24

As you read these verses, look back at the paintings and decide which verse/s best fit each. Paintings such as these are beautiful in and of themselves, but even more so as they point us to God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior. Thomas Cole once wrote, “Art, in its true sense, is, in fact, man’s lowly imitation of the creative power of the Almighty.”

May the Hudson River School paintings help you see the sacred lessons that surround you each day in your Father’s world.

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The above paintings and details are used solely for educational purposes.