John James Audubon’s 227th Birthday

Today — April 26th 2012 — is Audubon’s 227th birthday. Audubon’s art appears in many places, credited or not. I occasionally spot his artwork, usually as part of residential decor, in movies both old and new.  I’ve also seen his work on album and book covers, and quoted or modified in the works of 20th and 21st century artists including the often ferocious work of Walton Ford and the work of Andrew Brandou (whose “After Audubon” series put Audubon’s animals and birds into some very peculiar outfits and surroundings). Last year Google marked the day with a special Doodle composed of ten Audubon birds taken from eight different Havell prints.

Barn Owl from the Bien Edition of Audubon's Birds of America

My first Audubon folio. The Bien version of the Barn Owl is a daytime scene with a bright blue sky but the birds look identical to those in the Havell night scene.

Audubon’s work is ubiquitous and has sunk deep into our collective consciousness.  The first time I bought an Audubon folio print (in 1998 at my friend Ed Kenney’s gallery, Audubon Prints & Books in Vienna VA), I saw several Havells within my price range, including a trimmed PL 167 Key West Dove and a full sheet PL 144 Acadian Flycatcher. But I simply could not turn away from the Bien Barn Owl (which was at the limits of my budget). Those cavorting birds looked FAMILIAR to me, like something I had known all of my life.  Although the Havell image of the Barn Owl is a night scene, and the Bien print shows a daytime scene, the SHAPE of the owls  is what stood out in my mind. I really enjoyed owning that print. The owls against the blue was lovely, not as dramatic as the contrasty Havell, and of course not as sharp, but everyone who visited my home noticed that print. I’ve owned and sold two Bien Barn Owls. The second one I sold to a Havell collector, and after he received it he could not stop marveling over how much he loved the print.

For me, it’s always interesting to see John James Audubon’s work reinterpreted by someone, and in this case it was someone who knew him very well, his son John Woodhouse Audubon. There are several other interesting variations in the Bien Edition on Audubon’s original work including the introduction of more elaborate backgrounds (e.g., Bien PL 3 Black Vulture or Carrion Crow, Bien PL 20 Great-footed Hawk, and Bien PL 14 White-headed Eagle) in a few of the prints with simpler backgrounds in the Havell Edition.

Bien and Havell Edition Black Vulture plates

Two versions of Audubon's Black Vulture. The top image is from the Havell Edition, while the bottom image is from the Bien Edition. The background in the Bien version is much more elaborate. Most likely this background is the work of John Woodhouse Audubon, and the decision to add it to the image must also have been his.

I’ve often wondered what John Woodhouse Audubon must have felt, given the free license to change his father’s work. For the most part, he seems to have acted with restraint, adding only a few backgrounds, and adding a simple tint on most images where there had been only white paper. Some changes — for example lightening up the backgrounds on dark prints such as the Barn Owl, Great White Heron, and Jer Falcon) — seem to have been related to the limitations of color lithography versus that of hand-colored etching. The changes JWA made were consistent with the changes that he and his older brother Victor made to the octavo editions. Perhaps he worried what Victor — by that time an invalid and not much involved with the work — would say if he went too far. Or perhaps it never occurred to him that Audubon’s work could be improved. In any case, here’s wishing you a Happy Audubon’s Birthday.