The Complete Audubon – HistoryMiami puts the spotlight where it belongs

THE EXHIBITION – WHAT YOU WILL SEE

The exhibit is comprised solely of material owned by HistoryMiami, and is of course dominated by the plates of HistoryMiami’s folio set. There is some text on wall plaques at the beginning of the exhibit that introduce Audubon and The Birds of America and a wall plaque near the end of the exhibit that provides a brief synopsis of how HistoryMiami’s folio set came to be acquired and conserved.

There are a few cases with related items of interest and descriptive text. Among these cases are original prints from the work of earlier illustrator naturalists including Alexander Wilson (whose American Ornithology, circa 1810s to 1820s, is considered the first scientific and systematic work of North American ornithology, and which served both as a reference and model for Audubon’s work). Another case includes a large reproduction book by Audubon dealer and author Joel Oppenheimer that presents the never completed Bien Edition of The Birds of America.

Background detail from PL 316 Black-bellied Darter. A small number of the bird portraits include distant birds of the same species in the background.

 

The most striking feature of the entire exhibition is the visitor’s ability to examine closely many prints at eye level. A number of lenses are available in the galleries for visitors to borrow. Even without a lens, you will be able to see details in both the layering of different colors and in the composition that you might not notice looking at reproduction in books or at original prints from a distance. Take advantage of this opportunity to look at each plate to discover interesting things about them.

These stunning flowers add much to the overall charm and beauty of PL xxx Willow Grous

These stunning flowers add much to the overall charm and beauty of PL 191 Willow Grous

 

An Opening Nod to the Original Watercolors and Lizars

When the visitor first enters the exhibit, they are likely to be drawn to a case that displays a 1977 National Audubon Society reproduction of one of Audubon’s greatest paintings, the Great Egret (painted in New Orleans in 1821), the first of three portraits of this species he would paint, and a depiction he ultimately rejected for The Birds of America in favor of one he considered more naturalistic. The message I always draw when I see this magnificent (but unused) work is that Audubon wanted The Birds of America to reveal birds and their actual lives. That Audubon refrained from using this extraordinary painting as the basis of a print speaks loudly about his desire to be accepted as a great naturalist as well as a great artist. (For more on the role of the watercolors, see the page below entitled “How the Prints Were Made.”)

Case with Audubon watercolor reproduction

Reproduction of an Audubon watercolor (showing the Great Egret). This beautiful painting was not used by Audubon in THE BIRDS OF AMERICA.

 

On the wall to the left as one enters are the first ten prints of the set. These are particularly interesting because they are among the earliest versions (“states”) of those ten plates, all showing the unretouched work of Audubon’s first printer William Home Lizars of Edinburgh. Lizars was a talented printer, but did not employ aquatint, an etching technique that distinguishes the work of Lizars’ successor Robert Havell (known as Robert Havell Jr. until the death of his father).

The detail at top is from PL 6 Great American Hen (etched by W. H. Lizars, while the

Etching with and without aquatint. The detail at top is from Lizar’s PL 6 Great American Hen and Young (lacking aquatint), while the detail at bottom is from Havell’s PL 367 Band-tailed Pigeon and shows the subtle shading of aquatint). Havell was a master of this difficult technique.

 

Havell, a London printer, formed a partnership with his father after Audubon approached the father to take over the project, which had been delayed by a strike among Lizars’ colorists. The remaining 425 prints are the work of Robert Havell, each print reflecting the copper plate as it was at a specific moment during production. With repeated printings over time, the engraved writing on the copper plates would wear out and therefore have to be refreshed. This writing was also purposefully changed, either to correct errors, amend Audubon’s and Havell’s credits, and to reflect a standardized format that was adopted after completion of the first one-hundred prints. Eventually some of these first ten plates were retouched (that is, the actual image was changed) by Havell, either through the addition of aquatint or other changes.

This lengthy post continues on several pages, each dealing with a different topic. The topics are:

 

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