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Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections from "The Birds of America"

September 25, 2005 - April 2, 2006


(above: Robert Havell after John James Audubon, American Flamingo, 1838, hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper plate: 97 x 65 cm (38 3/16 x 25 9/16 inches); sheet: 101.3 x 68.3 cm (39 7/8 x 26 7/8 inches). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James, 1945.8.431)


John James Audubon (1785­1851) combined his love of nature with his artistic talent to produce some of the most beautiful and lifelike depictions of birds ever created. The exhibition Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections from "The Birds of America" features the superb oil painting Osprey and Weakfish (1829), a recent gift to the Gallery from Richard Mellon Scaife, along with 47 of the artist's hand-colored etchings selected from the Gallery's early edition of the publication, "The Birds of America" (1826-1838). One of only two known complete sets preserved in their original, unbound state, the prints were given to the Gallery in 1945 by Mrs. Walter B. James. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition is on view from September 25, 2005 through April 2, 2006 in the West Building. (right: John James Audubon, Osprey and Weakfish, 1829, oil on canvas, cradled wooden panel, 101.6 x 66.7 cm (40 x 26 1/4 inches). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Richard M. Scaife, 2005.32.1)

"As the nation's gallery, we are delighted to present this important American artist, who still surprises and delights with the energy and freshness of his vision," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to Richard Mellon Scaife for his gift of a rare Audubon painting, and to General Dynamics, our generous sponsor."

Audubon's dream of recording every native American bird consumed nearly 20 years of his life and was realized with the publication of a mammoth edition of 435 hand-colored etchings, all based on his vivid life-size watercolors. Some of the set's most celebrated and outstanding prints will be on view, including American Flamingo (1838), Carolina Parrot (1827), and Ivory-billed Woodpecker (1829), an image of a species thought to be extinct until its recent reported sighting in Arkansas.


The Exhibition

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a prolific artist who copied many of his bird drawings in oil paint, yet fewer than 70 of his oil paintings are known to have survived. On view in the exhibition, the recent gift to the Gallery of Osprey and Weakfish (1829) is an exceptionally fine example which Audubon kept in his own collection throughout his life. Audubon's image of the osprey derives from his observations of it in Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey, in June 1829, and clearly conveys his admiration of the bird's strength, beauty, and agility.

The prints on view in the exhibition were selected from the National Gallery of Art's early edition of "The Birds of America". Audubon's double-elephant folio -- a standard term of measurement for the largest sheet of paper produced in the 19th century, approximately 39 1/2 x 261/2 inches -- consists of 1,065 images of birds and represents 449 different species. The publication was a technical marvel, and its success was the result of a close collaboration between the artist and London printer Robert Havell, Jr. (1793-1878).

A largely self-taught artist and ornithologist, Audubon is credited with being the first artist to successfully portray birds in their natural habitats. He not only painstakingly noted the behavior of species in their environments, but also drew from specimens he shot and preserved to use as models. He devised a method of inserting thin wires into the bodies of freshly-killed birds, allowing him to position them in dramatic and lifelike poses. This process -- along with his vivid use of color and depiction of natural settings -- enhanced the emotional impact of his images.

One of the most striking images in the exhibition is American Flamingo (1838), a species Audubon first saw in the Florida Keys but was unable to collect. Although ultimately drawn from a specimen sent to him in London, Audubon brilliantly exploited the entirety of the sheet's dimensions to capture the expansive size and graceful pose of this magnificent bird. (left: Robert Havell after John James Audubon, Carolina Parrot, 1827, hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper sheet: 99.7 x 66.7 cm (39 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches); plate: 84.3 x 60.2 cm (33 3/16 x 23 11/16 inches). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James, 1945.8.26)

Among the exhibition's highlights is Goshawk and Stanley Hawk (1832), particularly interesting because it reveals Audubon's development as an artist: the two hawks on the bottom were drawn in 1809 while the hawk at the top was drawn around 1829.

Audubon did not always portray birds in tranquil moments. Virginian Partridge (1830), for example, depicts 18 bobwhites being attacked by a young red-shouldered hawk. Another dramatic image is The Mocking Bird (1827), which shows four birds protecting their nest of eggs against a rattlesnake. The birds' vivid expressions and gestures were criticized as unnatural by many of Audubon's rivals. It was also wrongly thought at the time that rattlesnakes neither climbed trees nor had the curved fangs visible in the print.

Other celebrated images on view are Carolina Parrot (1827) and Passenger Pigeon (1829), both of which portray birds that are now extinct. Also included is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (1829), one of the largest and most dazzling of the woodpeckers, which, until its recent reported sighting in Arkansas, was believed to be extinct. Audubon, a skilled and enthusiastic hunter, was in later years aware of the need for environmental conservation and protection of America's endangered wildlife and vanishing wilderness -- a cause that is synonymous with Audubon's name today.


Artist's Biography

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, Audubon was the son of a French naval officer and his mistress. His mother died within a year of his birth, and he was raised in Nantes, France, by his father and stepmother. They sent him to America when he was eighteen, both to manage the family estate near Philadelphia and avoid conscription in Napoleon's army. After a brief return to France, Audubon settled in the United States and eventually became an American citizen. In 1808, he married Lucy Bakewell, and together they had two sons.

Over the next decade, Audubon was involved in one unsuccessful business venture after another, while devoting his spare time to drawing birds. Bankrupted in 1819, he turned to his talents as an artist and began doing chalk and pencil portraits, and worked parttime as a taxidermist in Cincinnati. It was then that he reassessed his life and resolved to dedicate himself to the study of American birds and the publication of "The Birds of America". With that goal in mind, he set out for the woodlands of Louisiana on the first of several arduous expeditions through the American wilderness in search of birds.

Unable to secure financial support or a suitable printer for his project in the United States, Audubon sailed for England in 1826. Locating someone willing to commit to a publication that by conservative estimates would take more than a decade to complete was not easy. Ultimately it was the London printer Robert Havell Jr. who was primarily responsible for the completion of the set of illustrations. He worked assiduously over the course of a decade to reproduce Audubon's watercolors as life-size etchings, which were then hand-painted by a team of colorists.

In addition to difficult and lengthy excursions throughout much of America, Audubon made regular trips to London to supervise the etching and coloring of his prints. By the time the book was completed in 1838, Audubon had won critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for his sensitivity to both scientific illustration and fine art. He continued to study birds and other wildlife, but by 1846, his failing eyesight and diminished mental state prevented him from working, and on January 17, 1851, Audubon died at his home along the Hudson River in New York.


Related Activities

A 30-minute gallery talk, "Audubon in Focus," will be given by Anna O. Marley, graduate student lecturer, on November 11, 12, and 26 at 2:00 p.m. and by staff lecturer Philip Leonard on December 23 and 30 at 12:00 p.m. (right: Robert Havell after John James Audubon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1829, hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper plate: 96.7 x 65.2 cm (38 1/16 x 25 11/16); sheet: 99.7 x 67.2 cm (39 1/4 x 26 7/16). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James, 1945.8.66)

A family workshop, "Feathered Friends," will be held October 16, November 13, and December 4 from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Both children and adults will learn drawing and watercolor techniques while exploring the pictures of John James Audubon and other American naturalists. Led by artist and educator Claire Gizzard, the workshop is designed for children ages 8 through 12. Required online registration begins October 3 at www.nga.gov/kids

In a unique collaboration, the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) and the National Gallery of Art invite the Washington, DC-area public to a series of Saturday morning bird walks, led by experienced ANS trip leaders, offered in conjunction with the National Gallery's Audubon exhibition. The walks will be held once a month from November 2005 through April 2006. To register for the free walks, call the ANS at 301-652-9188, ext. 10. Information about the location and what to bring will be provided to all who register. In 2006, there will be tours of the exhibition with a National Gallery of Art staff lecturer and an Audubon Society educator discussing Audubon the artist and Audubon the naturalist.


Exhibition Curator

The curator of the exhibition is Carlotta Owens, assistant curator of modern prints and drawings, National Gallery of Art. Academic pursuits in art began for Owens at American University, followed by the University of Maryland, College Park, where she graduated in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in studio art that focused on painting and printmaking. The same year, she began her career at the National Gallery of Art as a staff assistant in the registrar's office and was later hired by the Gallery's education department as a docent. With her background in printmaking, Owens became assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs in 1980 and subsequently, assistant curator of modern prints and drawings in 1987. She did her graduate studies at the University of Maryland in art history. Since being at the National Gallery, she has organized and coordinated several exhibitions including: John James Audubon: The Birds of America, 1980; John James Audubon: The Birds of America at the National Gallery, 1984; Drawing on Stone: Early European Lithography, 1988; Milton Avery, Works on Paper, 1995; Artists and the Avant-Garde Theater in Paris, 1887-1990, 1998. John James Audubon: The Watercolors for The Birds of America, was presented at the National Gallery in 1993.


Audubon in the Permanent Collection

Prints and drawings by Audubon in the National Gallery of Art's collection that are not part of the exhibition can be seen by appointment in the Print Study Room, East Building, Monday - Friday, 10 a.m.-12:00 noon, and 2-4 p.m.; call 202-842-6380 to schedule an appointment.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

and this video:

John James Audubon: The Birds of America is a 29 minute, 1985 National Gallery of Art program directed by Steve York. After bankruptcy in business ventures in the early 19th century, John James Audubon set out on his amazing quest to render the birds of our country. His lifelong dream was realized with the publication of The Birds of America, a magnificent collection of color engravings of his watercolors, and which established Audubon as this nation's preeminent naturalist artist. The video "Traces Audubon's career as a dedicated artist who documented the entire pantheon of American birds and who wrote extensively on nature and the American wilderness. With quotations from his journals and illustrated with his original drawings and engravings, it tells the unique story of Audubon's artistic development and of his uncompromising devotion to his dream of publishing The Birds of America. The works of art are interwoven with live-motion nature photography and footage of sites prominent in Audubon's life and work. with viewer's guide."

rev. 9/21/05

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