For a man of his time, artist and naturalist John James Audubon was extraordinarily well traveled.
Born in 1785 in what is now Haiti, he grew up in France, settled near Philadelphia, then embarked on a painting career that took him down the Mississippi to New Orleans, from South Carolina to the Florida coast, north to Labrador looking for seabirds, along the Gulf Coast to Texas for shorebirds, and finally up the Missouri River in pursuit of the “viviparous quadrupeds” that made up his last work.
All that lifelong roaming was in search of birds, and later mammals, to sketch, measure and paint in what became one of the most celebrated and glorious records of a continent’s bounty. Scorned at first by American naturalists, Audubon was acclaimed in Europe, especially Scotland and England, where his most famous work, “The Birds of America,” was published between 1826 and 1838.
Selections from an original copy of that landmark tome are the highlight of a lush, informative and immensely pleasurable exhibit opening Saturday at the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus. “Audubon and the Art of Birds” runs through June 8, but will be presented in two sequential parts. Because the Audubon images are highly sensitive to light, 35 will be shown through Jan. 19, and a different 35 in the second half of the show running Feb. 1 to June 8.
In a fun touch, occasional bird calls and twitters animate the gallery air, a challenge for serious birders to match them with portraits of the birds in question. There’s also a video about Audubon and an opportunity for budding artists to try their hand sketching a taxidermied blue jay, posed as the master drew it in a nearby image.
Birds from Renaissance to now
Besides Audubon’s hand-tinted engravings, all recently cleaned and restored, the current display includes bird woodcuts, etchings and paintings dating from the 1580s to the present by many of the leading naturalists of every era.
Engagingly organized by Bell curator Don Luce, the art follows a loose chronology starting in the age of exploration, when artist/scientists began to describe and catalog the world. The images were stiff at first, generally profiles based on taxidermied carcasses, menagerie specimens or even just descriptions from explorers.
Sections flow together and encompass such topics as the beauty of birds, which highlights brightly plumed parrots and toucans; birds in their ecosystems, including paintings of camouflaged birds almost lost among shore grasses; and a dramatic section about life-and-death struggles in the avian world. The latter includes Audubon images of black vultures about to pluck out the eye of a dead deer and a golden eagle in awkward flight clutching a white rabbit as blood streams from the bunny’s eye.
“Audubon is one of the few bird artists who dealt with death,” said Luce. “Some of the best plates he ever did are of birds grasping their prey. They’re amazing, blood-drenched works of art that are very emotionally powerful, though today most people don’t want to look at them so you can get them for comparatively low prices at auction.”
Sprinkling Audubon images throughout the show enables visitors to compare his vivacious, inventive style with the more staid approach of other artists. Audubon was meticulous in describing birds’ plumage and anatomical features — the flair of a wing in flight, the shape of beak or claw, the coloration of breast or crest. But he went further in depicting them life-size, which accounts for the immense scale of his signature book. In its original printing, “Birds of America” was an “elephant folio” about 40 inches tall and 30 inches wide.
Each page contained a single bird with a characteristic background (swamp, blossoms, branches), an Audubon obsession nicely suited to colorful little birds like the now-extinct Carolina parrot but charmingly forced in the case of a long-necked whooping crane contorting itself onto the page.
One of the Bell’s treasures is on view, too, a copy of the 1860 Bein edition of “Birds of America.” Printed with color lithography rather than hand-painted, the immense book was intended to be a popular and less expensive version of the original. But the start of the Civil War stopped the project and only 150 of Audubon’s 435 original illustrations were reproduced. (Coincidentally, a beautifully boxed facsimile edition, with scholarly analysis by Audubon expert Joel Oppenheimer, has just been issued by W.W. Norton, $350.)
The beauty of Audubon’s paintings also sparked conservation efforts in the United States, a subject briefly dealt with here that merits a follow-up show. Highlights include conservationist Robert Bateman’s elegaic image of a red-crowned crane, and a Victorian hat festooned with exotic bird plumage, the latter a poignant reminder of the malign side effects of human ignorance and vanity.
Even Audubon’s unsung wife, Lucy, wafts in via a mysterious image that hints at the family effort his work entailed. After his death, Lucy and their two sons struggled financially and she was destitute when she died, Luce said. By then she had been forced to sell for scrap the copper plates on which his beautiful birds had been etched. Only one survived and it is in this show. Near it hangs a lovely, very rare image of a modest little “Swamp Sparrow” that’s signed “Drawn from Nature by Lucy Audubon.” In all of his work, it is the only image credited to her.