Miniature of the Month
Two hundred years ago this month, one of the world’s most beloved naturalists boarded a primitive wooden flatboat in Cincinnati and embarked on a journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. His job was to shoot game for the crew, but his intention was based solely on being able to paint life-size birds he would see along one of the most heavily traveled migratory routes in North America. What resulted seven years later was the publication of John J. Audubon’s The Birds of America.
Peering into the 1/12th-scale room box depicting life on Audubon’s Flatboat by Robert Off (room box), Beth Freeman-Kane (bird) and John Ruthven (painting), you’re instantly taken back in time and inside the life of Audubon. The piece depicts how he may have lived while researching, sketching and painting for his seminal work. It’s a pivotal example of how miniatures tell a story. Outside the windows is the view he may have admired while searching for prime habitat of his subjects. Inside you can imagine him at his work table—building wire structures to support the carcasses of birds he had undoubtedly studied for hours to create the dramatic poses for which he is known. Before Audubon, ornithological illustrations were technical, but lifeless. Audubon’s watercolors showed peregrine falcons feeding on a green-winged teal, a Louisiana heron preening itself, a red-breasted merganser diving…
In essence, Off had a similar motivation with his room box, to show Audubon in action. He designed it with a handy musket near the door, tools that may have been used by the crew, foods that may have provided sustenance and a faithful dog which may have offered companionship while Audubon sketched into the wee hours of the morning.
Freeman-Kane, with whom Off collaborated to create the Carolina parakeet, has herself patiently studied birds in their natural habitat. Known around the world for her fine-scale interpretations, her .9-inch-long bird pinned on the specimen board mimics a pose in Audubon’s painting of the only native parrot species in the U.S. (declared extinct in 1918). Ruthven, 93, painted the miniature artwork when he was 89. Often called the 20th century Audubon, he is well known in his own right as an author, naturalist and full-scale wildlife artist. When creating the 1.5 by 1.25 inch painting, he used techniques similar to those Audubon may have used.
Audubon’s Flatboat is a one-of-a-kind work exclusively displayed in the KSB Miniatures Collection. Our great state of Kentucky is also home to the John James Audubon State Park Museum in Henderson where visitors can view the double elephant folio edition (1827-1838) of The Birds of America. Visitor information at friendsofaudubon.org. For more on the creation of Robert Off’s room box, go to www.miniaturerooms.com.