John James Audubon, The Wild Turkey

This life-size painting of a wild turkey is a copy of the first page in Audubon’s famous book Birds of America.

John James Audubon, The Wild Turkey, 1845, oil on canvas, 115.6 x 83.2 cm (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we’re looking at a large oil painting of a turkey by John James Audubon.

Laura F. Fry: [0:13] You’ll see his name associated with especially bird conservation, but with conservation causes in many different respects today. That legacy stems from what he most famously produced, “Birds of North America,” which was a set of 435 prints of birds drawn to life that was published between 1827 and 1838.

[0:33] He also was working on a “Quadrupeds of North America” portfolio toward the end of his life, but birds were clearly his passion.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] By drawn to life, we mean birds that are drawn life-size.

Laura: [0:45] The largest birds, such as the turkey, take up this entire 40-inch-tall piece of paper.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] The image of the wild turkey was the first plate in the “Birds of North America,” his life’s work.

Laura: [0:58] According to Audubon, the turkey was one of the most interesting birds indigenous to the United States. For many Europeans who were coming to what is now the United States, turkeys were early on seen as a symbol of the Americas.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] Our conversation has veered to his famous print series, but it’s important to remember this is an oil painting.

Laura: [1:17] Audubon created this oil painting 20 years after his original watercolor of the American turkey.

[1:23] This is a young male turkey. You can tell that because he’s got a protuberance coming out of his forehead — looks like a unicorn horn — this is called a snood, and on an older bird, it would be draped over his beak. It’d be a lot longer.

[1:35] This bird also has a breast beard, these long feathers coming out of his chest that resemble a horse’s tail. Then he’s got leg spurs, this back claw coming off of his legs.

[1:46] The turkey has a distinct sense of personality. He’s looking back over his shoulder as though he’s looking for a predator, as he is also striding forward.

[1:54] In the background, you can see canebrake, which is a bamboo-like grass that grows in the Southeast. Behind that, there’s a series of storm clouds coming in over the horizon that give you a sense for the humidity that you might feel in Louisiana.

Dr. Zucker: [2:07] I’m struck by the notion of a painting of this great wild bird. It isn’t a portrait, and it’s not entirely a scientific illustration.

Laura: [2:16] This work is influenced by European portrait traditions, the vertical orientation, the hint of a landscape background.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] But at the same time, Audubon wants to get all of the details right. One of the most important audiences for Audubon are other scientists.

Laura: [2:31] He’s wanting to get the proportions correct, the colors of the feathers, the appearance of the feet and the claws, the markings of the bird’s head.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] While there is this scientific aspect to the image, it is also individualized. Look at that face.

Laura: [2:46] I think he’s inviting viewers to empathize with this bird, that he’s feeling a bit of shock. He’s got that wide-open, yellow eye. His beak is slightly parted.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] We think that Audubon would go into the wild, would find his subject, would shoot it, bring it back, and quickly wire it to reanimate it so that it seemed as if it was alive, and then would begin his sketches from life.

Laura: [3:10] When Audubon was first working on his sketches for “Birds of North America,” this is before the advent of photography, so he can’t shoot a photograph of this bird to study later.

[3:20] While we think of bird conservation today as based around watching birds, in this era Audubon was shooting birds. This was the only way that he could have a bird stay still so he could paint it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:30] Audubon is known for positioning birds in movement, in action, even showing sometimes the birds hunting.

Laura: [3:37] Other wildlife artists in this era often show animals in a static way, almost as though they are taxidermic mounts, but Audubon is interested in capturing a sense of life from the animals that he paints.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] Audubon is coming out of a period where nature was seen as inexhaustible.

Laura: [3:54] He wasn’t so much of a conservationist — again, that sense hadn’t come to the forefront yet — but what he did contribute was an awareness of wildlife in North America. His “Birds of North America” portfolio changed the way, and maybe the appreciation, that Americans felt for their wildlife.

Dr. Zucker: [4:12] The artist Audubon did represent himself as the quintessential American hunter, but his background is more complicated.

Laura: [4:20] Audubon was born in what is now Haiti, and it’s possible that his mother was of mixed-race ancestry. Audubon was sent to France, where his father was from. He was raised there and then moved to America when he was 18 in the early 1800s.

[4:36] He lived in several different places and had several failed business ventures. One of the things we know today as we’re reassessing figures like Audubon, he also enslaved people in the United States. Beyond that, he specifically spoke out against emancipation and held views that today we would describe as clearly white supremacist.

Dr. Zucker: [4:55] What do we do with this legacy, a man who is the namesake for American conservation, but also enslaved people?

Laura: [5:03] Some of the organizations today that are named for John James Audubon are grappling with his legacy. One example is the Audubon Society, which was founded 50 years after his death. They have started being frank about all sides of his past, and what a complicated figure he was.

[5:18] [music]

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Cite this page as: Laura F. Fry and Dr. Steven Zucker, "John James Audubon, The Wild Turkey," in Smarthistory, August 26, 2022, accessed May 19, 2024,