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Natural Wonders: Works
by John James Audubon from the Stark Museum of Art
An exhibition entitled Natural Wonders: Works by John James Audubon
from the Stark Museum of Art opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston
on Sunday, May 19, 2002. Featuring a series of hand-colored engravings,
an original copperplate, and several personal and official letters selected
from the permanent holdings of the Stark Museum of Art, the show also includes
a rare volume from the first edition of Audubon's celebrated The Birds
of America, published between 1827 and 1838, as well as a volume of
the even rarer chromolithographic edition issued by Julius Bien in 1859-60.
(left: John James Audubon (I785-1851), Belted Kingfisher, engraving
and aquatint, 38 7/8 x 26 inches (paper), 23 3/4 x 18 3/4 inches (comp.))
The current exhibition is the second in a series of cooperative
ventures between the Stark Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, which has
recognized the Stark Museum as "a repository for one of the finest
national collections of Western and American art." The institutional
partnership between the Houston and Orange museums provides an opportunity
to present masterworks from the Stark collection to audiences throughout
the Houston metropolitan area.
An estimated 60,000 viewers from throughout the state and
nation visited the previous Stark exhibition in Houston which opened in
November of 2001 and remained on view through April 21 of 2002. Entitled
Paintings of Native America from the Stark Museum
of Art, this included works by a number of American artists
who were active on the Western frontier during the nineteenth century.
Selected text panels from the exhibition:
- John James Audubon
- John James Audubon (I785-1851), the most famous American
artist-naturalist, captures the drama of nature in extraordinary watercolors
and prints. By combining scientific detail with artistic imagination and
skill, Audubon revolutionized scientific illustration. Audubon went beyond
simply reporting anatomical details, habitat, and feeding practices. He
animated his subjects by suggesting personalities and often by reenacting
the life-and-death struggle between predator and prey.
- Born in Haiti, Audubon spent his childhood in France
and came to the United States in 1803. In 1820, Audubon embarked upon an
ambitious project: to draw or paint every species of bird in America. For
the next 17 years, he made numerous expeditions through much of the United
States, including Galveston and Houston. Audubon studied birds both in
their natural habitats and as freshly killed specimens, recording his observations
in 435 vividly detailed watercolors. These watercolors were then engraved
and published as the extraordinary four-volume print set The Birds of
America. Audubon's next project, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North
America (1845-48), depicted 150 four-footed animals.
- The Birds of America
- John James Audubon had an ambitious and expensive plan
for The Birds of America -- life-size illustrations. Failing to
find financial support in the United States, Audubon turned to the British,
who embraced his image as a rough-edged "American woodsman."
Audubon courted wealthy and influential prospective subscribers including
King George IV of England, King Charles X of France, and the future King
Louis-Philippe of France.
- The Birds of America (1827-38)
consisted of 435 life-size prints on double-elephant folio sheets, each
more than 3 x 2 feet. London engravers Robert Havell & Son translated
Audubon's watercolors into prints using etching, aquatint, line engraving,
and hand coloring. Audubon's five-volume Ornithological Biography,
with descriptions of each bird's habitat, accompanied the print set.
- Issued in 87 sets of five prints, The Birds of America
was priced at over $1,000. Despite the extravagant sum, Audubon secured
orders for nearly zoo complete sets of prints, which were often bound into
- A Collaborative Effort
- John James Audubon employed talented assistants to paint
the settings for his birds and quadrupeds. The 13-year-old Joseph Mason
(1808-1842) painted the foliage, fruit, and flowers for about 50 of Audubon's
birds. George Lehman (c. 1800-1870), an established landscape painter,
painted the backgrounds for many southern species of birds, and Maria Martin
(1796-1863) drew flowers, insects, and butterflies to accompany more than
20 of the watercolors.
- Audubon's sons, Victor Gifford Audubon (1809-1860) and
John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862), also painted backgrounds and helped
oversee the publication of various editions of The Birds of America
and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
- Skilled printers including the extraordinary London engravers
Robert Havell (1769-1832) and his son, Robert Havell, Jr. (1793-1878),
were vital to Audubon's success. Numerous female colorists in turn assisted
the Havells by hand coloring the engravings for the double-elephant folio
of The Birds of America.
- Contract between Julius Bien and John Woodhouse Audubon
- November 7, 1859
- In 1859, Audubon's son John Woodhouse Audubon hired Julius
Bien, the first president of the National
- Lithographer's Association in the United States, to produce
a chromolithographic version of the double-elephant folio of The Birds
of America. In this contract, John Woodhouse Audubon offers
- Bien $1,250 upon delivery of 250 copies. Publication
of the Bien edition was interrupted by the Civil
- War, and the set was never completed. The Bien edition
includes only 106 plates.
- John James Audubon
- American, born Haiti, 1785-1851
- The Birds of America
- The Bien Edition
- Hired by Audubon's son John Woodhouse Audubon, Julius
Bien published a chromolithographic version
- of the double-elephant folio of The Birds of America.
Bien used the original copperplates and a special
- transfer ink to print each plate on dampened paper. That
image was then transferred to the lithographic
- stone, which, in conjunction with a flatbed scraper,
transferred the black-and-white images to paper.
- To add color, the stone was re-inked and the image was
run through the press again, one color at a time.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional
source by visiting the sub-index page for the Stark
Museum of Art in Resource Library
Search for more
articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource
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