Living Artistry of the Preening Great Egret!

Preening White Egret in sinuous pose

The poetry and elegance of the Great Egret or American Egret all year round, but most especially in springtime is undeniable! During the breeding season the presence of a bridal train of aigrettes or breeding plumage just enhances the inherent grace of this ethereal white bird. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Audubon’s art was how he captured the sinuous movement of the long necks of the great herons and egrets. He drew from nature in more ways than with the paint brush; he drew life!  It amazes me how little appreciation I had for this until I started taking pictures of birds, really looked at what all the fuss was about, and realized the splendor of both his accuracy of detail and his artistry.

Because he was intent on drawing his birds life sized, many of the larger species he painted in poses which would allow them to fit on the double elephant folio paper he needed for such large drawings. I understand the double elephant folio paper is 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. So I have enjoyed seeing the long necks of the Great Egret or American Egret , or the Great Blue Heron or the Flamingo and others in natural poses turned back to preen their lovely aigrettes or curved sinuously toward the ground where the bird might be eyeing prey. All this to fit the paper? Well probably not entirely since the life and loveliness is timeless.

So, I have posted two of my recent Great Egret photographs from this 2013 breeding season purely because I love the sinuous, grace of the neck positions and the flow of the feathers. I can shoot the same species over and over because I have a sense of wonder whenever I watch them move and take on a lovely body position just going about being alive! Looking at Audubon’s plates, I truly wish I could draw them too!! The two images I converted to black and white for the light and definition and to reveal the shape in ways the leafy background distracted from a bit. Although, I reserve the probable intention of making other treatments with color since the greens are gorgeous too.

Find below additionally, two of Audubon’s watercolors of this marvelous bird with its sinuous long white neck!  The first I believe was painted in 1821 and the second was from 1832 as best I have found. Audubon did paint the same species several times often and the 1837 version  became Plate 386 in his Birds of America and featured some background differences and the presence of the horned agama (prey that is).

Great Egret Preening at Nest-Black and White Image


New-York Historical Society Edition of Audubon's Fifty Best Watercolors

Audubon’s Great Egret Watercolor c 1821, this one was not on double elephant folio paper

1832 Audubon Great American Egret Watercolor

Audubon’s Great Egret (White Heron in his day). Another slightly different version of this with different looking sky and the addition of a Horned Agama in the foreground became Havell’s Plate 386 in Birds of American and is on the double-elephant folio paper. You can see there would have been no room for an upright neck posture of the entire bird.

Audubon Double Elephant Folio-Birds of America

For scale, this is a scene shot at the Cincinnati Public Library where Audubon’s Birds of America double elephant folio was on display. I read somewhere that some early subscribers to the book were dismayed that it was so large!! Can you imagine seeing those beautiful prints for the first time, new, some of the best work in history and not being thrilled?

May Audubon’s great work inspire us all to really see the world around us in its infinite detail and beauty!!

~ by Judy on July 21, 2013.

19 Responses to “Living Artistry of the Preening Great Egret!”

  1. Exquisite egrets, and your choice of b&w was spot on!! In terms of Audubon, my childhood home always had some of his prints on the dining room wall, courtesy of my mother. It was heartbreaking, though, to learn that Audubon did not paint from life: he painted specimens that he had caught and killed and posed so elegantly to fit on his elephant paper. While I understand the scientific used of captured specimens, and while I know we are SO SO much the richer for Audubon’s vibrant art, it breaks my heart to think of anyone killing an egret or heron or other bird just to create their art. Anyway, sorry for the digression. Your egrets are exquisite in b&w. Thank you for this posting.

    • Thanks truly for your lovely comment! Don’t be too harsh on Audubon though as any love of ours of these birds today is no greater than his was. I was surprised too when I first read of it. But, he lived in a different time…a time even when Snowy Egrets were considered a delicacy for eating. Seems crazy that herons or egrets were ever considered a food bird! While he did use a grid upon which he placed a dead bird so that his drawings were sized accurately, he drew from what he saw in life and his observations are extensive. We do owe him on quite a few levels. Today we just have to do the job of our time in protecting and keeping their habitat healthy for us and the generations to come. I know that it is dismaying to us to understand the way it was then though.

      Thanks again for commenting..surely appreciated!!

      • Exactly so, I agree with you about understanding the different times of Audubon. You and I are on the same page. Curiously, there are still people posting recipes for heron on the Internet. In an earlier blog post titled “Consciousness Raising,” I mentioned asking to have a heron recipe removed from a cookbook. As it turns out, the authors were translating a 19th century work into English from the German and they agreed to add a disclaimer note telling people to NOT cook herons, that they are protected and that the recipe was included for historical purposes only, Thanks for your reply to my comment, and again beautiful work!

      • Oh, that is interesting, thanks for that perspective as well!! There is a lot I don’t know about these things. One day I was walking along in the Tamiami Trail area and saw a Great blue heron which took wing before I got close enough to take a picture of it. It left for me a beautiful large gray feather, which I saved for my nature-loving granddaughter. Sometime after I lovingly packed it and sent it off to her, I read somewhere, it was illegal to have a Great blue heron feather. I passed that info along to my son but I think it should be treasured just the same. I presume its true to discourage the wrong kind of collecting.

      • You’re welcome. I used to live in Sarasota. Do you shoot at the Venice Rookery perhaps? About the feathers, yes it is definitely illegal to take or possess great blue heron feathers. They are a protected species under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Also, the inception of the Audubon Society came about in part from the use of heron breeding plumes on hats (or so I have been told). In terms of cooking herons, the Internet has stories of koi pond owners threatening interloping herons. From my perspective, while I understand that some invest thousands of dollars in their koi ponds, great blue herons are a higher life form than fish. A heron that poaches koi from a pond is only acting according to its heron nature.

      • No I have not had the chance to visit the Venice Rookery yet. I do know of it and have seen many lovely images by others from there. Maybe next season I’ll visit there. Many of my nesting bird images were taken at a wetland called Wakodahatchee. Click and you can visit a post I did after my first visit there, being incredibly impressed with not only the wildly successful rookery but the back story for its creation.

      • Many thanks for the link to this wonderful wetland. Your Louisiana Heron photo is another exquisite rendering. Wonderful backstory, as well. Best, Babsje

      • Oh thank you for reading and the comment on the heron. The Louisiana Herons have the most jewel like ruby eye during breeding and I just think they are beautiful. Audubon called this bird the “Lady of the Waters.” I’ve always thought this petite little heron was exceptionally graceful and “Lady” seems so fitting.

      • You’re welcome, and thanks for this little word-vignette about the Lady of the Waters. Very fitting!

  2. Beautiful shots and very interesting text.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • No is my pleasure!! Visited your site and really liked your writing marathon with people meeting at the train station and having a companionable yet writerly day out.

  3. I think it’s worth noting, too, that Audubon didn’t simply kill the birds in order to have a “model” laid out on his paper. His dissections of the birds is what helped make it possible for him to portray them so realistically. We look at the outside of the bird and say, “My gosh! It’s beautiful!” But he knew every joint, every muscle, every bone of their bodies. He was careful, respectful and thorough – and thank goodness he was.

    Now, here’s the kicker. You are going to love this. When I looked at the first Audubon illustration, I thought it was one of your photos! Oh, I wish Audubon could come back, just for a little while. We’re so amazed by his skill, but I suspect he would be equally amazed not only by our technology, but by the fact that we’ve learned to use it to make the world “live” just as he did!

  4. It is true, I have wondered in passing, what he’d think about modern photography, film or digital, which captures such color and detail so quickly. That is not to say his work and natural talent would be in any danger of being devalued as I still feel when it comes to art that nothing beats an original painting!! He was certainly ahead of his time in style and his work still appeals to modern sensibilities.

    I think of him more as a lover and observer of nature rather than a conservationist per se. He did observe when talking about the billions of passenger pigeons passing over Kentucky over a several day period, that as settlements were emerging that forest habitat would not support those numbers eventually. Apparently the passenger pigeons decimated everything edible in their path as they traveled in great undulating waves over the landscape. I encourage anyone to read Souder’s Under a Wild Sky as it is a marvelous biography of Audubon with so much great information about his life and very exciting times in America.

  5. A real beauty, especially when in breeding plumage!

    • Always and that is why it is so easy to find then in your viewfinder when you’ve gotten plenty of shots of them already. Beauty is always new.

  6. So absolutely stunning, especially with your effects…. Completely magical and ethereal. I always love seeing Audubon’s models paralleled with the photographed versions — it’s a fascinating study. And you’re right: Can you imagine what he’d think in our age?

    • Comparing Audubon’s drawings with the way birds actually look today is completely amazing to me….its the continuity I like, the fact that we can observe exactly what he did…even despite the changes in our modern world which mean we have to go further for the watching.

  7. Ironic, I live almost on top of a bird/nature reserve, and although the (little) egret isn’t resident, they do occasionally visit, so I’m not unfamiliar with them in the buff, so to speak. Yet your photos make them seem so much more alive.

    • Oh that is a super compliment…seeming more alive. I am not exactly an action photographer per se, so to think my stills managed to capture a sense of being with these graceful creatures is fantastic!!

      I noticed in your writing the mention of the heron as a guide/protector a couple of times. Even though I did do a post on the symbolism of the Great Blue Heron in context with native American lore to go with an image I thought channeled the spirit of a Seminole Indian Chief…..I was planning to look more into that.(I had planned a part II) I think in some mythology the heron is a guide for safe passage to the afterlife or heaven. The majesty and beauty of these birds is certainly reason enough to imbue them with divine purpose.

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