When an 18-year-old Frenchman named Jean-Jacques Audubon disembarked in New York in 1803, the landscape that stretched away to the west must have struck him as huge in every way. From the Appalachians to the Mississippi Valley stretched a forest of immense trees. In the bottomlands, the sycamores and tulip trees grew large enough that pioneer families could live in their hollowed boles. Beyond the forest lay the seemingly endless prairie with its brown tides of bison. Sturgeon eight feet long swam in the rivers. Passenger pigeons alit in immense swarms, one pioneer noted, roosting in the high trees “in the same manner as bees in swarms cover a bush, being piled on the other, from the lowest to the top-most boughs, which so laden, are seen continually bending and falling with their crashing weight.” Green, yellow, and red Carolina parakeets–now, like the pigeons, extinct–settled on fields, covering them so entirely, Audubon wrote, “that they present to the eye the same effect as if a brilliantly colored carpet had been thrown over them.”

To eyes accustomed to the well-ordered landscape of western Europe, this richness must have been spectacular. Certainly it came to define Audubon’s life. When he arrived in the United States, the Western wilderness and the efforts to tame it were both monumental. Squeezing nature into rectangular frames and book pages grew to be the monumental obsession of Audubon’s life.

His success is well known–Audubon’s paintings have become ornithological icons. Reproduced as copperplate engravings, they were hand-colored and compiled in a book, The Birds of America, of tremendous size and cost–it measured more than three feet high and two feet wide, and a complete volume today would sell for millions of dollars. These illustrations have been reproduced everywhere–in magazines and countless books, on calendars and postcards, T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Yet Audubon’s actual art has seldom been seen. A total of 435 paintings were used in The Birds of America. After the artist’s death, in 1851, his penurious widow sold the originals in 1863 to the New-York Historical Society, where they remained in relative obscurity for over a century. On May 7, 95 of these paintings, some of them cleaned up for the occasion, went on view at the Art Institute as part of a five-city tour that represents the first opportunity to see the works outside New York City.

There was something heroic about Audubon’s life, matching the landscape he inhabited. The illegitimate son of a French sea captain, Audubon emigrated to the United States partly to look after a small farm his father had bought in Pennsylvania but also to avoid Napoleon’s draft. He tried his hand at a variety of professions in various Ohio Valley towns–shopkeeper, traveling merchant, mill owner–but none of these ventures worked out very well. In 1819, in the midst of an economic downturn, he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Audubon had begun to draw birds as a boy, but he was largely self-taught and his early works are static and lifeless. He kept at it, though: whenever he could he disappeared into the woods, abandoning family and business, often for days at a time. He followed the calls of unknown birds, shot them, and sketched them by the light of his campfire. “If I were jealous,” his wife once said, “I should have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.”

Audubon’s skills as a field ornithologist became almost legendary even in his own lifetime. He was a crack shot, and sharp-eyed enough to see without binoculars the tiny feet of chimney swifts as they grabbed twigs for their nests. He performed the first bird-banding experiment in America. He told stories, probably untrue, about hunting with Daniel Boone. His extensive journals–he was as prolific a writer as an artist–are filled with his exuberant pleasure in traipsing the frontier, meeting new people, and discovering new birds.

It was bankruptcy, finally, that converted Audubon from blissful, obsessed amateur into professional artist: he began doing portraits and teaching drawing to support himself. His own skills improved commensurately, to the point that he grew sure of what was probably a long-held secret ambition: to publish a book depicting all the birds of North America at full life size. It was an audacious project for a man who often struggled to put food on the table and who lacked a formal background in both art and science.

By 1820 Audubon had gotten to know most of the birds of the Ohio Valley and so set out on a two-year trip down the Mississippi to Louisiana, where he knew that the subtropical climate would offer rich new pickings. He took with him a student and collaborator, Joseph Mason, who ended up painting some of the botanical settings that make many of the bird portraits so memorable. Mason’s age in 1820 has been variously reported as 13 and 18; in any case he was a gifted artist and contributed in no small measure to Audubon’s later fame.

By 1824 Audubon had accumulated enough paintings to look for a publisher. He traveled to Philadelphia, then the scientific capital of the United States. Unfortunately, he made some enemies. His brash manner and French flamboyance–he had long, flowing hair and liked to dress in frontier-style buckskin robes–served him well in the west and in New Orleans but not on the east coast. Audubon finally had to travel to London to find an engraver, and it was not until 1826 that the first plates of The Birds of America were printed.

The Birds of America appeared in installments, the final one in 1838. It was an extremely expensive book–a subscription cost roughly $1,000. Audubon had to canvass for years in both this country and Europe to find subscribers, visiting royalty, scientific societies, and the country homes of the wealthy.

He was fortunate that interest in natural history ran high in the early 19th century. Rapid exploration of the Americas and other areas new to Europeans meant that formerly unknown plant and animal species were being discovered at a phenomenal rate. Advances in science had made it easier to classify and systematize this wild exuberance of nature. It was fashionable among wealthy Americans and Europeans to cultivate an interest in natural history–an interest that often included buying large, expensive books on the subject.

In the end, though, Audubon sold only about 200 complete copies of The Birds of America, and a perhaps larger number of incomplete copies (many subscribers welshed on their installment payments). Even at $1,000 a pop, the publication of his great work didn’t make Audubon rich–he achieved real financial security only with the publication of later, smaller books and by selling copies of his paintings. But he did become famous–feted on two continents, wined and dined by kings and presidents. As one French critic trumpeted of his work, “Such an unheard-of triumph of patience and genius!”

Many critics since then have been less kind. Environmentalists have criticized Audubon for the number of birds and other animals he killed. True, the artist did work in an era before binoculars–when shooting a bird was often the only effective way to identify and sketch it–and Audubon did express concerns about wildlife conservation in his later days. But for much of his life he participated heartily in the time-honored frontier pastime of shooting at everything that moved.

Many scientists have panned Audubon’s paintings, too. One of the most famous plates in The Birds of America shows a rattlesnake climbing into a mockingbird nest. Four frenzied, squawking adult mockingbirds fill the frame with a baroque whirl of activity. Almost immediately after the plate’s publication, naturalists accused Audubon of embellishment. They said that rattlesnakes don’t climb trees, and that furthermore the fangs were all wrong.

In fact Audubon seems to have been right about those details: rattlesnakes occasionally do climb trees, and the fangs were right. But more recently critics have condemned the portrayal of the birds generally, accusing Audubon of anthropomorphism. And one can indeed see in the paintings a whole gallery of human attributes: self-sacrificing courage (as in one of the mockingbirds), martyrdom, mischief, nobility. But the fact that these attributes made his subjects look more like people and less like birds didn’t bother Audubon. He painted a gang of blue jays eating the eggs of another bird, and wrote about the scene in a later book: “Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbour so much mischief;–that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!”

Audubon has also been criticized for the awkward, contorted poses of his subjects. Yet he often was forced to adopt these because The Birds of America was an uneasy blend of art and science. He had to fold some of the largest birds into odd poses just to squeeze them onto the paper. And he often chose unnatural poses for birds of all sizes to show off their distinctive field marks.

The originals on display at the Art Institute, most of which were created with a utilitarian mix of pencil, pastel, watercolor, gouache, and other media, often reveal to what extent Audubon aimed at publication, not exhibition. In many the birds themselves are unfinished. And he often painted a bird and left its surroundings blank, telling the engraver to fill in a certain landscape. Some “originals” are actually cut-and-paste collages incorporating earlier portraits. He was not above occasionally plagiarizing the work of earlier, lesser-known artists. And Audubon relied on the skills of several other painters, including his own sons, to fill in plants, landscapes, and even an occasional bird. (This practice was quite acceptable at the time–one of Audubon’s rivals, the Briton John Gould, became known as one of the greatest creators of ornithological art books and he could barely draw.)

For all the criticisms, most of Audubon’s paintings are quite lifelike–astonishingly so by the standards of the early 19th century. One of the collage works–depicting the northern goshawk and Cooper’s hawk–shows how Audubon’s work developed and why it was revolutionary. Three hawks are posed against a white background (the engraver filled in a landscape for the book version). The lower two, dating from before 1819, are stiffly posed and captured in drab pastel. The figure above, luminously painted in watercolor in 1829, is a perched hawk leaning forward as if about to take wing. Its bill is slightly open, its expression animated. The lower birds look lifeless; this one is alive. Here we see the craft that sold Audubon’s book.

In most natural-history art of that era lifeless specimens were posed against just such white backgrounds. But most of Audubon’s birds were given real settings. He was the first major artist of natural history to surround birds with plants, nests, and full landscapes. He was the first to depict his subjects feeding, fighting, courting, and dying. He was the first to show ecological relationships, even gory ones; it’s not hard to imagine some of his patrons turning away in disgust from his picture of vultures feeding on the head of a deer.

Most of the time Audubon was not very good at painting birds flying–few artists were before the invention of high-speed photography. But in a few paintings he managed to convey something of the sensation of a bird in flight, lithe and muscular; his osprey carrying a fresh-caught fish in its powerful, reptilian feet is a masterpiece.

Even when his birds don’t look entirely lifelike, it’s obvious Audubon was a master of composition and design. His terns diving against simple blue-sky backgrounds have an oriental simplicity and grace. His paintings of the swallow-tailed kite and the magnificent frigate bird are stunningly composed: large, mainly black birds with wings partly spread against white backgrounds. The viewer returns again and again to these images.

More impressive than any individual painting, though, is the aggregate of Audubon’s work. The New-York Historical Society bought the paintings partly out of a desire to keep them in the United States, and it’s not hard to see how these works could be considered profoundly patriotic. Nature on the frontier could be bewildering in its wild complexity; and here was an effort to catalog that complexity, to show the world what beauty resided in the woods and on the shores of the new country. In the early 19th century, many European naturalists argued that the fauna and flora of North America were merely debased versions of Old World nature–a ridiculous argument that Audubon’s work helped refute.

Which is why the viewer might finally look at the paintings a little wistfully, knowing that some of this beauty has gone. The passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the great auk, the Labrador duck all have been driven to extinction by unbridled hunting and the loss of habitat. And the populations of many of the other birds Audubon portrayed–especially the migrant songbirds that winter in fast-vanishing tropical forests–are dropping steadily.

However jewellike and beautiful his paintings, Audubon acknowledged that they were only pale shadows of what he found in the woods on his endless expeditions. Looking now at his works raises the hope, but no conviction, that we will better steward the birds and their environs than did the Americans of Audubon’s own time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/collection of the New-York Historical Society.