Audubon's original drawings -- a bird in the hand, indeed


October 03, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In America, the name of Audubon is probably as well known as those of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Picasso -- maybe better known.

Yet it's a safe bet that not a hundredth or even a thousandth of those who know the name have ever seen a single work from the artist's hand. For Audubon's magnificent life-size watercolor drawings of "The Birds of America" are not what we know. They were used, initially, as the basis of Robert Havell's 435 colored engravings, also life-size, which became the four volumes of "The Birds of America" (about 200 copies were produced).

Relatively few people have even seen the original engravings, at least in any numbers, for exhibitions of them are not everyday occurrences. What we have seen -- what the vast majority of us know Audubon's work by -- are reproductions of the engravings, which themselves are reproductions (albeit extremely fine ones) of Audubon's drawings.

The drawings, meanwhile, have resided for the past 130 years at the New-York Historical Society, which bought them in 1863 from the artist's destitute wife. Twice, in 1975 and 1985, they were all put on view in New York, and aside from that about a dozen have been exhibited at a time, in rotation. Until now, they have never been sent on tour outside of New York.

Beginning today, about 85 of them, newly conserved and brilliantly colorful, begin a nationwide tour at the National Gallery in Washington, and America will finally have the chance to see the art of John James Audubon.

It's an opportunity not to be missed, for more than one reason. As the exhibit's admirable catalog points out, Audubon is a part of our heritage in complex ways.

First and foremost, he was an extraordinary artist, as the show amply demonstrates. He was not only able to depict birds accurately down to the most minute detail -- although that in itself was a great achievement -- but the largely self-taught artist mastered a wide range of media and techniques -- watercolor, gouache, pastel, pencil, oil, collage, glazing for luminosity, scratching out to achieve highlights. He often used many of these in the same drawing, to achieve startlingly lifelike effects.

One need only look at the variety of colors he employed in the brown pelican's beak -- yellows and pinks and whites and grays and browns among them -- to have some sense of the tremendous care Audubon took. Even though the artist used dead specimens, one need only look at the eyes of his birds to sense how much life Audubon succeeded in conveying.

No reproduction can be 100 percent faithful to the original, though Havell's hand-colored engravings, produced on sheets of paper measuring 2 by 3 feet, come remarkably close. In the exhibit are two Audubon drawings of the bald eagle, from 1820 and 1828, together with the Havell engraving made from the second one. They show how much Havell could do and what he couldn't. At a glance, print and drawing look identical, not only with respect to the physical appearance of the bird but in expression as well. But, while in both the bird looks fierce, in the drawing this expression is deepened with a suggestion of the cunning and the nasty that just eludes the print.

It is not in the least far-fetched to attribute human characteristics to Audubon's birds. He did so freely, writing of their behavior in human terms for the moral edification of his audience. Blue Jays, for instance, are "rogues . . . and thieves . . . more tyrannical than brave." Of two Carolina turtle doves courting, "the female, still coy and undetermined, seems doubtful of the truth of her love and, virgin-like, resolves to put his sincerity to the test. . . ."

That Audubon not only writes about his birds in such terms but endows the birds in his pictures with human characteristics gives them an added layer of interest, infusing the drawings with narrative life. The artist makes the parallel between animal and human behavior clearest in his drawing of a golden eagle, flying above mountains with a newly caught rabbit in its claws. In the distance, Audubon pictures himself with a gun. As the rabbit's eye drips blood in this vivid image, so we are meant to understand that the hunter's killing of animals is no less cruel.

In addition to his many gifts as an artist, however, Audubon was a notable scientist. Traveling through what was then the United States and beyond, in the early decades of the 19th century, he collected specimens to portray. But he also observed, pictured, and -- in the five-volume "Ornithological Biography" written as an accompaniment to "The Birds of America" -- wrote about wildlife in its natural habitat and in its natural pursuits: hunting, feeding, flying, fighting, etc. In this he was in the vanguard in his time, and in opposition to the centuries-old tradition of picturing both flora and fauna in isolation.

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