May 13, 2021

Art & Lifestyle:

Wilson Beat Audubon to the Birds

Wilson

Even John James Audubon considered Alexander Wilson the father of American ornithology. Audubon admits in his memoirs that he had never thought of publishing his paintings but when he saw that Wilson had already successfully published two volumes of beautiful bird illustrations, he realized he had the ability and talent to publish a book as well.

Wilson inspired Audubon to draw all the birds in America and provided the business plan to produce the work, all during a fateful chance meeting in Louisville, KY, in 1810. Wilson was descending the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, drawing birds and selling subscriptions as he went. Although Audubon did not subscribe to Wilson’s American Ornithology, Wilson’s influence on Audubon is clear.

Wilson’s short life gave the fame to Audubon and his famous masterpiece, Birds of America. However, there is little doubt that had Wilson lived, he would have reaped the recognition he so richly deserved as an explorer, naturalist, and artist.

Wilson’s contributions to American ornithology and natural history are astounding. In the short period of 10 years, Wilson traveled nearly 10,000 miles alone through the vast American wilderness. He drew more than 320 birds representing 262 species. Wilson’s untimely death in 1813 was truly a tragedy. His American Ornithology was almost completed, and he was on the verge of wealth, fame, and honor when he died.

Alexander Wilson (1766-1810) discovered nearly 50 new species of birds and more birds are named in his honor than any other person in the world: Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Petrel, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Tern, and Wilson’s Thrush.

It was Alexander Wilson who published the first book in America of our birds with beautiful hand-colored lithographs. Dennis B. Williams Rare and Antique Bird Prints is liquidating the last of its collection. Information on available prints can be found on their Member Page. Or email dbw43@comcast.net.

The bird above is, of course, the flamingo, a huge favorite of natural illustrators from the start. Wilson was the third to paint the flamingo, and his is shown above. There are five others and they will appear in the subsequent weeks.

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