Before Audubon:alexanderwilson’s Birds of the United States opens at the Toledo Museum of Art in April
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He knocked on the door of the White House and sold a subscription directly to Thomas Jefferson; learned to draw with a pencil given to him by Rubens Peale; discussed bird migrations with John Bartram; received skins of western birds from none other than Meriwether Lewis; and would eventually create American Ornithology,america’s first serious study of its own native birds—and all of this 25 years before his more famous colleague John James Audubon ever dreamed of drawing a beak, claw or feather.
The Toledo Museum of Art’s first edition of Alexander Wilson’s pioneering multi-volume publication American Ornithology; or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States will be the highlight of the museum’s newest exhibition, Before Audubon: Alexander Wilson’s Birds of the United States, which opens April 21.
Wilson completed nine volumes of American Ornithology, comprised of 70 hand-colored etchings, 268 species in all and 26 of which he was the first to identify.
“The prints are not only beautifully produced with vibrant hand-coloring, but they are historically important as the first attempt at a comprehensive natural history study of American birds,” says Paula Reich, head of the museum’s interpretive projects and managing editor.“it’s also the first major scientific study published in the country.”
Wilson was born in Scotland in
1766 and trained as a weaver but was soon drawn to Scottish poetry through a fascination with Robert Burns. He published a short verse titled The Shark, which was critical of a local mill owner who was known to cheat his employees. Wilson was charged with libel and blackmail, thrown in jail and eventually required to burn a copy of the poem on the courtyard steps.
Wilson left for America shortly afterward with his nephew on a ship so crowded that they slept on the deck for the duration of the journey.the two landed in New Castle and then walked to Philadelphia were he found work as a weaver in a Scottish colony. He soon became a teacher and spent a majority of his free time walking through the woods and watched birds he found to be much more exotic than those he was used to seeing in Scotland.
Wilson’s journals are filled with poetic descriptions of these interactions with birds in America. Describing goldfinches, he once wrote,“on their first arrival in February assembling in great numbers on the same tree to bask and dress themselves in the morning sun, singing in concert for half an hour together; the confused mingling of their notes forming a kind of harmony not at all unpleasant.”
After a brief trip to Newyork,wilson returned and started teaching at Gray’s
Toledo Museum of Art
Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), Plate 66: Wood Stork, Scarlet Ibis, Flamingo, White Ibis, from American Ornithology; or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States, vol. 8, 1814. Hand-colored etching and engravings with letterpress, 103/8 x 13¾...