Image and Narrative

April 29, 2019

Audubon’s representation of common American Blue Jays is both narrative and dramatic: with great spirit and perhaps even a sense of pleasure, the Jays are seen stealing and eating another bird species’ eggs. The unfinished painting offers an opportunity to consider the care with which the artist assembled the various elements of his compositions: the painter uses the eggs as focal points around which he organizes dynamic activity of the birds. Though the flowers and leaves are bright spots in the final printed image, in the painting Audubon leaves them uncolored; by contrast, he carefully delineates the shades of white and near-white that appear on the eggs and on the birds’ plumage, using both the color of the paper and various applied pigments. The partially colored painting reminds us, too, of the important work of coloring the black-and-white cooper plate etchings. Before coloring, the etchings would look much like the uncolored leaves, flowers, and feathers in the present painting.  

Blue Jay (Plate 102)

From Ornithological Biography, or, An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, by John James Audubon, 1831–49

Reader, look at the plate in which are represented three individuals of this beautiful species,–rogues though they be, and thieves, as I would call them, were it fit for me to pass judgment on their actions. See how each is enjoying the fruits of his knavery, sucking the egg which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent Dove or harmless Partridge! 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! Yet so it is, and how like beings of a much higher order, are these gay deceivers! Aye, I could write you a whole chapter on this subject, were not my task of a different nature.

READ Audubon’s complete text at

Audubon’s Creative Process at Beinecke Library, Installation 3/3 – Read More