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Selections from The Birds of America by John James Audubon

 

Rare prints from John James Audubon's The Birds of America will be on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art July 14 - Dec. 1, 2002. Part of the Museum's permanent collection, this selection of prints has been featured in only three previous exhibitions over the last quarter-century, and the folios have been on view only once before, nearly a decade ago. The exhibition, featuring approximately 20 prints from The Birds of America, coincides with the centennial of the formation of the Audubon Society of North Carolina in 1902.

"Fewer than 200 bound sets of The Birds of America are known to exist today, and the Museum is proud to own one of these," said Museum Director Lawrence J. Wheeler. "Hand-colored prints from this monumental four-volume publication and two of the bound double-elephant folios will be on view -- making this exhibition a rare opportunity for art lovers, bird lovers and book lovers alike to appreciate the majesty of Audubon's achievement." (right: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Carolina Parrot, The Birds of America, 1827-38, hand-colored aquatint/engraving on paper)

Included in the exhibition are prints such as the The Wild Turkey, the Carolina Parrot, the Trumpeter Swan, the Snowy Heron or White Egret and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. The selection on view was unbound from the folios years ago, and has recently been cleaned and reframed by the Museum. Because the prints are susceptible to fading caused by exposure to light, they are rarely displayed in the galleries.

With The Birds of America, noted ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) completed a project that began some 20 years before: publishing in book form life-sized portrayals of every species of bird in North America.

"Only a heroic figure such as Audubon could have been equal to such a Herculean labor," said exhibition curator Huston Paschal, the Museum's associate curator of modern art. "This daunting project not only required extensive fieldwork -- studying birds' distinguishing characteristics of shape, plumage and habit -- but also revealed his impressive entrepreneurial skills in navigating the world of publishing and bringing this masterwork to completion."

Audubon broke from the practice of recording wildlife from stuffed examples and established a new approach to documentation. Sharing the reverence for nature of his contemporaries the Hudson River School painters, Audubon moved from the tradition of isolating birds in stiff profile and instead portrayed them in then natural habitats. He completed his first sketch in watercolor and then combined the watercolor with pencil, pastel, ink, oil, crayon and/or egg white to produce the specialized texture and colors he desired for each bird. Addressing the meticulousness of his artistic approach, Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography (a companion to The Birds of America): "Doubtless, kind reader, you will say, while looking at the seven figures of Parakeets... that I spared not my labour. I never do, so anxious am I to promote your pleasure."

Publishing The Birds of America was a project of equal magnitude to the fieldwork. Unable to convince an American publisher to accept the project, Audubon contracted with Robert Havell in London to undertake a complicated process involving etching, aquatint and engraving with hand coloring to accomplish what Audubon had in mind. To depict the birds life-sized, Havell printed The Birds of America on oversized "double-elephant" sheets of paper, measuring 29 inches by 40 inches. In all, the 435-plate folio took 12 years to complete, from 1827 to 1838. Over this period, Audubon sold the publication to the public through a subscription system, with subscribers receiving five plates at a time over the 12-year period or the entire series bound into four volumes at the project's conclusion. At the time of publication, the price in the U.S. for a complete bound set was $1,000. In March 2000, Christie's auctioned a bound set of The Birds of America for $8.8 million, setting a world's record for the auction of any printed book

In 1846, the State of North Carolina purchased the double-elephant folio at the request of Governor William A. Graham and with the help of Joseph Green Cogswell, celebrated librarian and bibliographer who was the headmaster of the Episcopal School for Boys in Raleigh from 1834 to 1836. Cogswell, then living in New York, found The Birds of America and purchased the work for the state for $650, a reduced amount probably due to the fact that two of the plates were missing. The volumes remained at the State Library until 1974, when they were transferred to the Museum Since that time, the Museum has located replacements for the two missing plates to complete the folio.

Years ago, the Museum began conservation work on the folio by unbinding a small group of plates, surface-cleaning them and framing them. These prints have recently undergone further conservation treatments in preparation for this exhibition, and the prints on view are glazed with anti-reflective acrylic sheets provided by Tru Vue. Further conservation work is needed for the complete folio, involving unbinding more than 400 remaining plates, treating them -- for problems including soiled, creased and torn paper, improper mends and staining -- and rebinding them A fundraising campaign is underway to raise funds for this complex process.

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