Aesthetics for Birds: Institutions, Artist-Naturalists, and Printmakers in American Ornithologies, from Alexander Wilson to John Cassin

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Virginia Tech

In this project I explore the development of bird illustrations in early American natural history publication. I follow three groups in Philadelphia from 1812 to 1858: institutions, artist-naturalists, and printmakers. Each of these groups modeled a certain normative vision of illustration, promoting, producing, and publishing images that reflected their senses of what constituted good illustration. I argue that no single set of actors in this narrative did work that would become the ultimate standard-bearer for ornithological illustration; rather, all of them negotiated the conflicting interests of their own work as positioned against, or alongside, those who had come before. Their diverse intentions, aesthetic and practical, sat prominently in their separate visions of drawing birds; utility, artistry, and feasibility of the images directed the creation of the illustrations. How they used their ideal ways of depicting birds changed the ways that their successors would confront the practice of illustrating birds.

ornithology, Philadelphia, illustration, natural history