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.
"This tradition," writes catalog essayist Amy R. W. Meyers, ". . . in which an individual organism was shown apart from its surroundings and isolated against a blank page . . . [allowed the specimen to be] typed according to its physical attributes and placed in a metaphysical chain of being which began with the simplest forms of life and ended with humankind."
By reacting against this system and instead picturing and reporting actual environmental behavior, Audubon in his achievement looked forward to that of Darwin -- though it is not claimed here that Darwin was influenced by Audubon. Rather, writes Meyers, "British naturalist Charles Darwin, . . . in the next generation, would draw conclusions from observations similar to those of Audubon that would revolutionize Western cosmology."
As if his careers as artist, scientist and writer were not enough for one lifetime, Audubon of necessity pursued still another career -- as entrepreneur. In short, he sold "The Birds of America." He first had to find an engraver willing to take on the project, and then find enough subscribers to make the project worthwhile.
You would think, wouldn't you, that this tremendous American project would find an American engraver? But no, as Annette Blaugrund points out in her essay "The Artist as Entrepreneur." In Philadelphia and New York he came up against twofold opposition. People involved with the rival ornithological publications of Alexander Wilson and Charles Bonaparte connived against Audubon, and American snobbishness rejected his frontier clothes and appearance and his sometimes boastful manner.
In England, on the other hand, he was appreciated as an oddity, accepted as both artist and scientist, and found his engraver in Havell, who brought the "Birds" out between 1827 and 1838. But Audubon also had to travel extensively on both sides of the Atlantic collecting subscribers (including Baltimore's Robert Gilmor).
In these entrepreneurial efforts, Audubon did what we today call networking. When he went to England, for instance, he took letters of recommendation from Henry Clay, DeWitt Clinton and Andrew Jackson. "Audubon's marketing plans," writes Blaugrund, "made use of the following techniques: letters of introduction, exploitation of personal contacts, membership in scientific and social organizations, publication in scientific journals, exhibitions, celebrity endorsements through word of mouth and subscription lists, and newspaper and magazine reviews." But he also possessed that invaluable advantage, star quality. "Audubon's singular marketing tool, however, was his flamboyant public image which he used to great advantage."
Aside from the extraordinary opportunity to see Audubon's art at first hand, this exhibit together with its catalog provides an opportunity to learn what a larger-than-life figure he was. America, loath to accept him in his time, cannot claim him as its own, either. Born in 1785 in what is now Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a French maid, he was brought up by his father near Nantes in France and came to this country shortly after 1800 to look after a property of his father's. For the next 15 years or so, he strove to be a businessman and was miserable at it, failing time after time (fortunately for us). All the while, he was perfecting his skills as an artist, and in 1820 decided to make drawing the birds of America his life's work.
After it was finally published, two decades later, he ended up modestly well off and bought himself a piece of property on Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and sons. He died in 1851, and his sons not long after.
In death he was treated as shabbily by his adopted countrymen as he had been in life. By the early 1860s his widow was forced to sell the watercolors, but they were not exactly grabbed up. The New-York Historical Society eventually came to the rescue and, after a fund-raising campaign, bought 430 of them plus 34 other original drawings for $4,230, less than $10 apiece. The widow also sought to sell the copperplates, but not many wanted them and she had to sell all but about 75 for scrap.
What: "John James Audubon: The Watercolors for 'The Birds of America' "
Where: The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and 4th Street Northwest, Washington.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 2
Call: (202) 737-4215