Wil­son’s Birds

Be­fore Audubon:alexan­der­wil­son’s Birds of the United States opens at the Toledo Mu­seum of Art in April

American Fine Art Magazine - - Museum Preview: Toledo, Oh - By Joshua Rose

2445 Mon­roe Street Toledo, OH 43620 t: (419) 255-8000 www.tole­do­mu­seum.org

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...

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