The Complete Audubon – HistoryMiami puts the spotlight where it belongs

THE EXHIBITION – INTRODUCTION

Head of Great White Heron

Detail from PL 281 Great White Heron

 

The Complete Audubon: The Birds of America offers a chance to see Audubon’s work the way he wanted people to see it, viewing page after page after page of life-sized North American birds in all of their variety. From the unassuming Brown Lark to the stately Brown Pelican, from the tiny Columbian Humming Bird to the hulking Californian Vulture, from drab sparrows to flamboyant herons, the exhibition brings us the closest we can get to the realization of Audubon’s dream — to see the whole of North American ornithology in a format simultaneously artistic, instructive, and economically feasible to produce.

Detail from PL 6 Great American Hen

Tick on a chick, one of the superb details on PL 6 Great American Hen and Young. The plate for this print was originally etched by W. H. Lizars. The print in the HistoryMiami folio predates the changes Havell made later to the copper plate.

 

Hence the plates show birds in real-life activities and habitats, while often posed to illustrate important field marks. To ensure economic viability, the plates were sold by subscription in groupings Audubon called numbers (“parts” or “fascicles” in current terminology). It was a “pay-as-you-go” enterprise, profits from the early numbers financing production expenses for the later numbers. The exhibition presents the framed plates not strictly in order of issue, but in an approximation that ensures that the plates of one number are all hung relatively close to each other.

Limitations on wall space necessitated the stacking of frames in columns of one to three (typically two) framed prints. The exhibit also includes temporary walls which are not full room height. Depending on their own height, most visitors will have excellent access to about one-third to one-half of the prints. I was able to closely examine many prints at my leisure, picking up on color and image details that would otherwise be easy to miss, and are not conveyed adequately by reduced-size reproductions.

Color detail from PL 186 Pinnated Grous

Color on the prints can be examined close up. Detail from PL 186 Pinnated Grous (Greater Prairie Chicken)

 

Curator Rebecca Smith has wisely kept commentary and explanation to a minimum, allowing Audubon’s magnificent art and Robert Havell’s masterful printing to command the stage. Each framed print is identified by a number on the wall (corresponding with the plate number), and an entry on one of a series of small plaques. A number of the plaque entries include a brief quote from Audubon’s text or other comments on some aspect of the print (e.g., noting a collaboration between Audubon and another artist, mentioning some aspect of the composition or print condition, explaining Audubon’s inclusion of a bird not found in North America). These comments give a taste of some of the information you might find if you looked up every print in a reference such as Susanne Low’s A Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America, or if you had the benefit of walking around with a knowledgeable friend. The comments I read were interesting and perceptive, not exhaustive or distracting, but I was occasionally too mesmerized by the prints to notice if there was anything to read.

A group of prints with plaques

A group of prints with accompanying plaques. Plaques list plate numbers, current species names and the species names that Audubon used, and occasionally comments or quotes.

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