Picks and Pans Review: The Birds of America

UPDATED 07/22/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/22/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

by John James Audubon

He was born in 1785 and died in 1851, but Audubon is still the greatest naturalist painter of all time. This beautiful volume, published to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, contains 435 color plates. Audubon was one of those astonishing artists who, while essentially a scientist documenting specimens in nature, transcended that function. Certainly, a bird-watcher could identify a Canada Warbler from Audubon's paintings, but the bird itself, perched on a branch with a torn leaf and a pod with pink seeds, is marvelously rendered in intense blue and brilliant yellow—splendidly artful splashes of color on the page. Three Red-throated Loons (with chick) are arranged across the page as formally as if they were designs in an ancient Egyptian frieze, and yet every identifying mark is there. The Lesser Scaup Duck has a scowl so comic that Disney's Donald would die of jealousy. The Common Tern sweeps down a gray sky with shadow-soft feathers and a beak and feet the color of nail polish. Two Sharp-shinned Hawks perch on a dead tree limb, claws curling and eyes wild, glistening. Audubon's ability to suggest flowing water and his clear delight at including sand, beautiful shells and water plants make his pictures of shore birds especially appealing. In the history of art, Audubon's contribution is unique; these reproductions of his work are a joy. (Macmillan, $39.95)

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