Today in 1785, John James Audubon was born, and as it happens the Grand Rapids Art Museum has a small visiting exhibit featuring 30 of his bird prints, on loan from the Shelburne Museum in Vermont (photos not permitted but this wall was okayed; I also snagged one print in the photo, not intentionally I assure you :).
John Audubon has a fascinating personal history but that is not dealt with in this exhibit. The emphasis is on his work and the art of print-making. Two rooms feature his prints and another room provides information on the art and the tools of print-making, along with some background on subsequent editions of Audubon’s work and bird illustrating predecessors.
The introductory room contains a short summary of Audubon, a letter written by him, and a map showing his travels in the U.S. where he obtained his drawings over a 17 year period.
To its credit, the museum does state that Audubon hunted and killed his subjects before drawing them. Today that may be a bit of a shock but in the 1800s, it was de rigueur.
“He drew the majority of his subjects on the spot after killing and posing them in a life-like manner...” Actually he spent hours and sometimes days wiring the specimens before drawing them, and he also hired hunters to go out and kill birds for him. Here's an image found on the internet that is included in the exhibit.
Audubon drew from 1820-1826 and after being rebuffed by at least one American publisher, he took his work to England and received enough attention and funding to begin publishing his “Birds of America.” He also sold subscriptions to his work. King George IV was a subscriber.
In 1829, Audubon returned to America, and made repeated trips during the 1830s. By 1838, over 400 plates were made, “drawn from nature by J.J. Audubon”, “engraved, printed and colored by R. Havell, London.” Most prints in the exhibit have a print date visible and a few do not coincide with the date on the museum tag, which reflects the best guess as to when the drawing was done. About a third of the displayed prints are from the 1820s, and the rest are from his 1930s trips.
The Havell Company traced the original Audubon drawings onto copper plates, and used etching and aquatint to engrave into the plate a detailed replica of the original watercolor. They then hand-colored the engravings. One print, the Wild Turkey, also credits W. Lizars with the printing. And that is an interesting back story. Originally, Audubon brought his work here but was not satisfied with the ten plates engraved by W.H. Lizars. He brought his work to Havell, where it remained. A Havell print now sells for thousands of dollars, and a complete folio, into the millions.
With new technical advances in color printing, Audubon and his sons attempted a less expensive edition in the 1840s, hand-colored lithographs, known as the Octavo Edition. One of these volumes is displayed in the museum, under glass.
John Audubon died in 1851. A few years later, his sons began work on another version of his work, produced by the Bien Printing Company. They produced and sold color-printed lithographs of part of Audubon’s work, but with the onset of the Civil War production was halted.
Unfortunately for the family, it became destitute and John Audubon’s widow sold his original water color drawings in 1863 to the New York Historical Society, who presumably still have them. She also sold most of the original copper plates for scrap.
There’s much more to say and read about this fascinating man and his work, and the information provided in this exhibit was not enough for me. It drove me to find out more, and that’s not a bad thing to take away from any exhibit. It’s definitely worth a visit, maybe two.
This peacock photo was taken in 2006 at the Oakley Plantation in Louisiana where Audubon spent four months in 1821, teaching the owner’s daughter and roaming throughout the area. He drew 32 bird pictures while here and the plantation is now an Audubon State Historic Site.