John James Audubon
1785–1851 | American
Long Haired Squirrel
Watercolor, pencil, ink, and gouache on Whatman paper
Inscribed “No. 6. / Plate 27” (upper left); “Sciurus Longipilis, Aud & Bach. / long haired Squirrel” (lower center); and “No. 6, Pl. 28 / Back ground finished” (lower right)
This watercolor portrait of a long-haired squirrel was composed by America’s most famous woodsman John James Audubon. The composition was part of the artist’s unprecedented work on American mammals, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which he hoped would be his final masterwork. Tragically, Audubon died before the text was complete. Of the 150 paintings copied in lithography for publication in the Quadrupeds, Audubon did 76 in watercolor; the rest, in oil, are the work of his younger son, John Woodhouse
In drawing his mammals, Audubon relied on some of the methods and techniques he used for drawing birds. He would first lay out the entire composition in graphite, using a light under-drawing just visible underneath the watercolor. His methods for depicting feathers, painstakingly developed over 30 years, were transferred to rendering the appearance and texture of fur through the use of mixed media, including pencil, ink, and watercolor, augmented by scratching to create texture and highlights.
In the present work, one squirrel raises a forepaw and arches its tail as if preparing for flight, the other pauses its feeding to engage the viewer directly, as if in a heightened state of alert; both exhibit individual character. The repetitive curves of the tails, echoed in the curvature of their backs, unite the pair at the same time that the tension between their opposing states of action and repose creates a highly animated presence. Like the finest of the watercolors for the Quadrupeds, the successful melding of composition and technical mastery yields a drawing sharp in its detail, utterly convincing in its representation of surface and texture, bold in design, and inexplicably infused with an intense feeling for the untamed in nature.
Shortly after completing a drawing, Audubon often inscribed it in pencil, and then later in ink, as in the present instance, where the inscription in pen corrects the plate number given in pencil. Sometimes the later inscriptions reflect knowledge gained during the time of the book’s production right up until the time of the printing of the text, which followed the printing and hand-coloring of the lithographed plates. While the artist’s inscription in ink on the present drawing and the letterpress from the later lithographic plate assign it the name Sciurus Longipilis, it is later identified as Sciurus Lanigerus, or Woolly Squirrel, specifying the mountain ranges of Northern California as its geographical range.
Watercolors of similar quality and subject matter can be found in the collections of the Wadsworth Atheneum (Connecticut), the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Morgan Library & Museum (New York), the New York Historical Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Paper: 23 1/2” high x 18 1/2” wide
Frame: 34 3/4” high x 30” wide
Private Collection, Boston, MA
Private Collection of J. Welles Henderson, Portsmouth, NH; acquired 1930s
Private Collection, New York, NY; acquired 2008
M.S. Rau, New Orleans, LA
The National Sporting Library and Museum, Middleburg, Virginia, October 11, 2011–January 14, 2012, Afield in America: 400 Years of Animal and Sporting Art, p. 9 pl. 6The World of Duncan Phyfe: The Arts of New York, 1800–1847, p. 146 no. 100