Thank goodness young John James Audubon was not very good at business. If he had been more successful at finance, we would never have had the phenomenal collection of images that have influenced the way we see nature for nearly 200 years.
The exhibition, “Drawn to Life: Audubon’s Legacy,” on display through July 25, offers a detailed examination of the artist/explorer John James Audubon’s life and work. The exhibition features work from the Stark Museum of Art’s collection of Audubon’s art including pastels, engravings, lithographs, printed books and manuscripts.
Born April 26, 1785, in what is now Haiti, Audubon was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a French chambermaid. When his mother died, his father took him to France.
In 1803, Audubon’s father sent him to manage his property at Mill Grove, Penn. After marrying Lucy Bakewell, he and his wife moved to Kentucky. Audubon was not a successful businessman and was even jailed for debt. Luckily for us, this prompted him to devote himself to the study of birds.
The works in the exhibition reveal Audubon’s vision to document all the birds of North America. The artist was keen to present not only representations of the animals, but also a glimpse into the personality of the animal itself.
The images in the exhibition show the birds swooping for prey, or nesting in their natural habitat. Audubon frequently showed groups of birds, all in different positions, as if to give us the full range of the creature’s life.
Some of the images seem slightly disingenuous, as Audubon seems to ascribe human personality to the animals, but his artistic license is forgivable.
The display also offers a fascinating glimpse into the craft of the printer, and Audubon’s tinkering between editions. Three versions of the female turkey hang next to each other. Each is obviously from the same engraved plate, but the coloring (much of which was done by hand) varies slightly. There are also three versions of the male turkey.
There are three images of the “Purple Martin” — one black and white, one with the birds colored, and one with the background filled in. Each image is fascinating on its own, but the chance to compare the different states gives the reader insight into the process, and into the bird itself.
In separate images of the Yellow Haired Tropical and Bullock’s Oriole, one can see significant changes in the images, as Audubon adds birds or foliage.
Without doubt, Audubon’s masterpiece is the elephant portfolio of “Birds of America,” which features 435 individual prints of birds which are life-size and life-like. Each image in the original is hand colored, and because of its especially large size is known as the double elephant folio.
When Audubon traveled to Louisiana in 1820, he traveled with Joseph Mason who provided drawings of plants. It was important to Audubon that the birds be represented in their habitat.
Between the years 1826 and 1838 Audubon issued The Birds of America in parts, five prints at a time, printed in Europe by Robert Havell, Jr. The folios were offered by subscription at a cost of $10, which were later bound into volumes. About 200 sets were completed.
As well as the “Birds of America,” the exhibition features letters, contracts and drawings. The show also extensively features the work Audubon did with sons, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” which included 150 prints of four-legged animals that bear their young alive.
“Drawn to Life: Audubon’s Legacy” is not only full of exquisite drawings, but continues the Stark Museum’s run of exhibitions that combine visual aesthetics with historical and process education.
Audubon’s work transports the viewer to a time when the country was young and the joy of discovery meant more than simply clicking a link on a tablet.
The Stark Museum of Art is located at 712 Green Ave. in Orange.
For more information, visit starkculturalvenues.org/starkmuseum.
Review by Andy Coughlan