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Natural Wonders: Works by John James Audubon from the Stark Museum of Art


An exhibition entitled Natural Wonders: Works by John James Audubon from the Stark Museum of Art opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on Sunday, May 19, 2002. Featuring a series of hand-colored engravings, an original copperplate, and several personal and official letters selected from the permanent holdings of the Stark Museum of Art, the show also includes a rare volume from the first edition of Audubon's celebrated The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838, as well as a volume of the even rarer chromolithographic edition issued by Julius Bien in 1859-60. (left: John James Audubon (I785-1851), Belted Kingfisher, engraving and aquatint, 38 7/8 x 26 inches (paper), 23 3/4 x 18 3/4 inches (comp.))

The current exhibition is the second in a series of cooperative ventures between the Stark Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, which has recognized the Stark Museum as "a repository for one of the finest national collections of Western and American art." The institutional partnership between the Houston and Orange museums provides an opportunity to present masterworks from the Stark collection to audiences throughout the Houston metropolitan area.

An estimated 60,000 viewers from throughout the state and nation visited the previous Stark exhibition in Houston which opened in November of 2001 and remained on view through April 21 of 2002. Entitled Paintings of Native America from the Stark Museum of Art, this included works by a number of American artists who were active on the Western frontier during the nineteenth century.


Selected text panels from the exhibition:


John James Audubon
John James Audubon (I785-1851), the most famous American artist-naturalist, captures the drama of nature in extraordinary watercolors and prints. By combining scientific detail with artistic imagination and skill, Audubon revolutionized scientific illustration. Audubon went beyond simply reporting anatomical details, habitat, and feeding practices. He animated his subjects by suggesting personalities and often by reenacting the life-and-death struggle between predator and prey.
Born in Haiti, Audubon spent his childhood in France and came to the United States in 1803. In 1820, Audubon embarked upon an ambitious project: to draw or paint every species of bird in America. For the next 17 years, he made numerous expeditions through much of the United States, including Galveston and Houston. Audubon studied birds both in their natural habitats and as freshly killed specimens, recording his observations in 435 vividly detailed watercolors. These watercolors were then engraved and published as the extraordinary four-volume print set The Birds of America. Audubon's next project, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-48), depicted 150 four-footed animals.

The Birds of America
John James Audubon had an ambitious and expensive plan for The Birds of America -- life-size illustrations. Failing to find financial support in the United States, Audubon turned to the British, who embraced his image as a rough-edged "American woodsman." Audubon courted wealthy and influential prospective subscribers including King George IV of England, King Charles X of France, and the future King Louis-Philippe of France.
The Birds of America (1827-38) consisted of 435 life-size prints on double-elephant folio sheets, each more than 3 x 2 feet. London engravers Robert Havell & Son translated Audubon's watercolors into prints using etching, aquatint, line engraving, and hand coloring. Audubon's five-volume Ornithological Biography, with descriptions of each bird's habitat, accompanied the print set.
Issued in 87 sets of five prints, The Birds of America was priced at over $1,000. Despite the extravagant sum, Audubon secured orders for nearly zoo complete sets of prints, which were often bound into books.


A Collaborative Effort
John James Audubon employed talented assistants to paint the settings for his birds and quadrupeds. The 13-year-old Joseph Mason (1808-1842) painted the foliage, fruit, and flowers for about 50 of Audubon's birds. George Lehman (c. 1800-1870), an established landscape painter, painted the backgrounds for many southern species of birds, and Maria Martin (1796-1863) drew flowers, insects, and butterflies to accompany more than 20 of the watercolors.
Audubon's sons, Victor Gifford Audubon (1809-1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862), also painted backgrounds and helped oversee the publication of various editions of The Birds of America and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
Skilled printers including the extraordinary London engravers Robert Havell (1769-1832) and his son, Robert Havell, Jr. (1793-1878), were vital to Audubon's success. Numerous female colorists in turn assisted the Havells by hand coloring the engravings for the double-elephant folio of The Birds of America.


Contract between Julius Bien and John Woodhouse Audubon
November 7, 1859
In 1859, Audubon's son John Woodhouse Audubon hired Julius Bien, the first president of the National
Lithographer's Association in the United States, to produce a chromolithographic version of the double-elephant folio of The Birds of America. In this contract, John Woodhouse Audubon offers
Bien $1,250 upon delivery of 250 copies. Publication of the Bien edition was interrupted by the Civil
War, and the set was never completed. The Bien edition includes only 106 plates.


John James Audubon
American, born Haiti, 1785-1851
The Birds of America
The Bien Edition
Hired by Audubon's son John Woodhouse Audubon, Julius Bien published a chromolithographic version
of the double-elephant folio of The Birds of America. Bien used the original copperplates and a special
transfer ink to print each plate on dampened paper. That image was then transferred to the lithographic
stone, which, in conjunction with a flatbed scraper, transferred the black-and-white images to paper.
To add color, the stone was re-inked and the image was run through the press again, one color at a time.


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