Tag Archives: John james Audubon

Artists/Naturalists Maria Sibylla Merian and Titian Ramsay Peale II

Last fall Painted Lady butterflies invaded Colorado.

Their orange and black wings flickered on every bush, and they streamed across roadways in and around traffic. There were so many, that they even showed up in a 7-mile wide blob on the Denver weather radar. No one had ever seen so many in Colorado, and everyone took lots of photos.

Before photography, artists were the ones who helped people learn about the natural world. Some artists/naturalists, such as John James Audubon, are famous (an earlier Picture Lady post tells about his life and work) but most weren’t.

However in the 1700s and 1800s these mostly amateur artists/naturalists were vital parts of expeditions to explore the American West, the Pacific islands, Africa, and South America. Their careful drawings and paintings of birds and plants, mammals and insects astonished people and advanced scientific knowledge of the beauty and variety of God’s creation.

The Artists/Naturalists 

Two artists/naturalists who were especially interested in insects and butterflies have been rediscovered.

Maria Sibylla Merian


Maria Sibylla Merian public domain, wikimedia

(1647-1717), a German woman who lived in the Netherlands, studied the insects of her own region and later traveled with just her daughter for company, to Suriname, then a Dutch colony in South America. For two years she traveled on foot and by canoe through lush tropical rainforests to study insects there, telling about ants that formed rafts to float across water and tarantulas that ate humming birds. The folks at home were fascinated!




Titian Ramsay Peale II public domain, wikimedia

Titian Ramsay Peale II (1799-1885) son of the American artist and naturalist, Charles Willson Peale, (an earlier Picture Lady post tells about the amazing Peale family of artists), was born in Independence Hall where his father’s museum occupied the 2nd floor. He watched while his father prepared and catalogued specimens brought back by Lewis and Clark and helped put together a mastodon skeleton his father helped dig up in New York . Later, as an artist/naturalist, himself, Titian accompanied an expedition to the Rockies.


Kilauea, Titian Ramsay Peale II public domain, wikimedia

On a two year expedition around the Pacific islands, Titian painted an eruption of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.


Though separated by a century and an ocean, Maria and Titian had a lot in common:

  • They were trained in art by their fathers and other family members
  • They were fascinated by butterflies and moths
  • They raised butterflies and moths in order to observe and draw their life cycles
  • Their work was recognized and appreciated early in their lives, but forgotten later
  • They went on long exploring expeditions
  • Maria’s Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname has been republished, and Titian’s unpublished manuscript Butterflies of North America, which was given to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC after his death and stayed in its rare book collection, has now been published for the first time.
  • One difference: some of Titian’s butterfly specimens are still displayed in double-sided glass boxes he designed at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences

Their Art

Maria and Titian used their observational skills to portray butterflies accurately. They painted butterflies in their own habitats, with host plants and their full life cycle from egg to caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly. Maria was one of the first to do this, and you can see her influence on Audubon and Peale

Maria’s and Titian’s artistic skills enabled them to paint the butterflies in vibrant color and pleasing compositions. Not for them dull rows of specimens. Because of the purpose of showing the butterflies accurately, there is little depth in these illustrations, but the artists have made good use of their up-close space, not crowding things together.

The illustrations are full of different types of line and shape, color and texture, and pattern—all provided by the Lord! Plants are up close and the butterflies look like they could fly off the page.


Maria Sibylla Merian’s work public domain, wikimedia

Maria’s illustrations can be very dramatic, with half eaten fruits and leaves and ants battling spiders. She was definitely part of the Netherlandish vanitas painting tradition, (beautiful still lifes with partly-eaten food, insects, lizards, or other jarring elements to remind viewers of the shortness of life).

Titian’s butterflies are often arranged more lyrically—sometimes seeming to float up in lazy spirals


work by Titian Ramsay Peale II public domain, wikimedia


Remember that it helps to understand art if you know its original purpose. So, although Maria’s and Titian’s work is in museums and private collections, most of it was made to be printed in books for many people to enjoy.

Here are some resources to see more of their beautiful illustrations.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, available on Amazon but expensive. Use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to see more of Maria’s illustrations.

Insects and Flowers: the Art of Maria Sibylla Merian by David Brafman, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008. Lots of up close illustrations through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd, Mariner Books, 2007, available on Amazon, and has “Look Inside” feature.

2 Children’s books about Maria

Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Abrams, 2018, ages 8-12. A biography of Maria with lots of information about her times. I haven’t been able to read the whole book yet so can only say that the excerpts look interesting. One short section does make a point that Maria’s family is Protestant, but only attributes a good work ethic to that.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman, HMH Books, 2018, ages 10-12. I have a copy of this on reserve at the library, but it’s not available yet. Hopefully by my next post I can tell you more about it.

Titian Ramsay Peale II


my own photo

The Butterflies of North America, Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript, Abrams, 2015, available at libraries, but you can see many of its illustrations through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. The book purposely looks old and the illustrations retain the look of a personal nature journal.

If you borrow it from a library, be sure to look at the section on caterpillars. Not many naturalists paid much attention to caterpillars, but Titian lavished much care on them.

2 Children’s Books about Charles Willson Peale. Titian’s father, Charles, fought in the Revolutionary War and painted many of America’s early leaders. He also started an art and natural science museum in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The whole family, including Titian, helped in the museum.

The Ingenious Mr. Peale: Painter, Patriot, and Man of Science by Janet Wilson, ages 11 and up. I have not read this.

The Joke’s on George, Michael O. Tunnell, George Washington was a friend of the Peales and visited their museum. In passing a trompe l’oeil painting of two of Charles’ sons, Washington bowed to them in greeting.

To view 2 videos by Khan  Academy about the museum and the painting, go to


(The Titian in the Staircase painting is an older brother who died. Titian Ramsay Peale II was named for this older brother.)


I’m going to change up the order of the next posts about this art so you can right away enjoy some artist/naturalist activities over the summer. You don’t have to be a professional scientist to study and learn about the world in your own back yard.

Before the next post, try to find a small to medium size sketchbook that you can carry with you. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and you can decorate its cover.

Nature guides are helpful, too, and available at libraries.

In this series the last post will be the devotion—some thoughts for a summer of observing and learning about the small wonders of God’s creation.


Molly is ready to go exploring. Are you?


(That isn’t a muzzle on Molly. It’s a gentle harness to keep her from pulling on our walks. She can still drink, bark, and even give kisses!)

Be sure to sign up for the next Picture Lady posts for some ideas about observing and drawing nature and suggestions for writing and reading about it.









John James Audubon, Painter of Birds


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.


Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme, public domain

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 Mourning doves.

mourning doves, John James Audubon, public domain

As required for a field guide, we can see their beaks, their feet, and their markings from every angle, but notice the outspread wings and tails of the birds stand out against the paper. The next to bottom bird is especially dramatic.. The top two birds form a pleasing pair, and we can  imagine them flitting from branch to branch as they chatter and eat.

These ivory billed woodpeckers audubon 4 ivory-billed woodpeckerare colorful, and 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 this painting he depicts the ferocious battle as a red-shouldered hawk attacks some northern bobwhites—creating a true and yet very dramatic picture.

northern bobwhite, by John James Audubon, public domain

Some of the birds flee as the hawk with out stretched wings attacks from above. The hawk and the fleeing bobwhites 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.

American flamingo, by John James Audubon, public domain


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. 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!