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John James Audubon: Bird Man

With incredible persistence and artistic skill, John James Audubon made birds and other animals come to life on the printed page.

John James Audubon, Brown Pelican, plate 421 from The Birds of America.

John James Audubon, Brown Pelican, plate 421 from The Birds of America.

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To understand why we’re bewitched by the work of John James Audubon, turn to page eight of Joel Oppenheimer’s 2013 opus, The Birds of America: The Bien Chromolithographic Edition (W.W. Norton, $350.00). The Chicago-based dealer wrote it to redeem the reputation of the Bien edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, an ill-fated folio produced in the mid-19th century by the artist’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon. Page eight tells you all you need to know about why Audubon’s masterwork keeps its mastery, and why the luxuriant, sprawling (the paper measured 26 1/2 inches by 39 inches) double elephant folio produced in the 1820s and ’30s by Robert Havell holds the record for the most expensive printed book ever auctioned.

The page features three hand-colored engravings of the Carolina parrot by three ornithological artists. The first was rendered by Englishman Mark Catesby circa 1739, the second by Scottish-American polymath Alexander Wilson and dating to 1808–12, and the last by Audubon, finished in 1826. Catesby’s and Wilson’s satisfy the minimum requirements; their images are meant to record the Carolina parrot, and they do. Audubon goes so much further. He portrays seven of the colorful birds on branches. They lift their feet, they spread their wings, they open their beaks to squawk. One looks directly at the viewer. Audubon’s vision is scientifically accurate, but his birds are alive in a way that the Catesby and Wilson versions simply aren’t. Audubon’s sensitivity and deftness is that much more poignant now that the Carolina parrot is extinct. His vibrant, carefully observed group portrait does the vanished bird justice and helps us understand what we have lost. “Alexander Wilson was the most famous ornithological artist before Audubon,” says Oppenheimer. “If you look at his work, it looks like it’s from the 17th or 18th century. When you look at Audubon, it looks like it’s from the 20th century. It’s such a leap, stylistically.”

This talent for capturing not just the scientific facts of the bird but its behavior and its personality elevates Audubon’s illustrations to fine art. Bill Steiner, a birdwatcher, collector of Auduboniana, and author of Audubon Art Prints: A Collector’s Guide to Every Edition (University of South Carolina Press, $29.95) knows firsthand what a genius Audubon was. Speaking of his Red-tailed Hawk, a dramatic and violent plate showing two predators battling in mid-air for possession of a freshly-caught hare, Steiner says, “I have seen that scene in nature three times. It was straight out of Audubon. He got it right.”

Audubon achieved this feat by venturing into the wild with his sketchbook and absorbing what nature showed him. The birds he shot aided his memory, but he had no photographs or video to help him in his labors. He also had no kerosene lamps, no SUVs, and no whiz-bang modern fabrics to keep him warm and dry. “I’m a nature freak. I’ve camped in the dead of winter in the woods. It’s kind of stunning what he had to put up with to accomplish what he did,” says Steiner. “You sit here today and look back and wonder how he did it.” Audubon was equally at home in the most elite settings imaginable, including the White House, where he dined with President Andrew Jackson in 1830. He sold the elites subscriptions to The Birds of America, convincing them to purchase a tome that cost $1,000, or as much as a handsome house did at the time. “Very few did everything as Audubon did,” says Oppenheimer. “He was an artist; he drew it. He was an entrepreneur; he sold it. And he published it.”

One detail that Audubon did not anticipate has shaped the market for the Havell double elephant folio: thanks to legwork by Waldemar Fries and other dogged scholars, we know that at least 171 complete, four-volume double elephant folio sets exist (or, in some cases, did exist), and we have a decent estimate for how many loose prints are floating around (about 91,000), issuing mainly from the 41 sets that were deliberately broken up during the 20th century. Breaking sets was common until 1989, when the Havell double elephant became more valuable as a whole. Only one has been broken and auctioned since then, and the outcome ensured that it will almost certainly be the last. Dubbed the Sachsen-Meiningen set after its owners, a German royal family who consigned it to Christie’s in 2004, it lacked 11 of the 435 images that comprise a complete set, which influenced the decision to sell its plates individually. But Steiner and Harry Shaw Newman II, co-owner of the Old Print Shop in New York and Washington, D.C., recall that a multimillion-dollar offer for the whole arrived not long before auction day. Whether the purchase was refused or the family decision-makers ran out of time to consider it, the sale went ahead as planned. Each man recalls different sums for the offer, but both numbers were larger than the $5.7 million auction total. “I predicted no one would ever break up a set again,” says Steiner. “I was wrong, but they paid for it.”

The Havell double folio of The Birds of America accounts for much of Audubon’s fame, but it is not his sole worthy endeavor. In 1839 Audubon released the first octavo edition of The Birds of America, a smaller version aimed at those with less-than-princely budgets; individual octavo prints today range from $50 to $2,500. The aforementioned Bien edition, named for its initial printer, was one of the earliest casualties of the Civil War; John Woodhouse Audubon spent much of the year 1859 traveling the South and signed up 70 subscribers there, only to see those accounts destroyed by the hostilities. The unfortunate turn of events forced the Audubon family to declare bankruptcy, and with it, they lost control of the rights to the late John James’ book (he had died in 1851). Subsequent publishers weren’t nearly as devoted to quality control as the Audubons were, and their slipshod product reflected poorly on the Bien. Prints from the Bien now range from $500 to $48,000, and whole Bien sets (a total of 150 plates, enough for a single volume, were produced before the war began) are about as scarce as Havell double elephant folios. Oppenheimer estimates that perhaps 10 of those Havells, and maybe half a dozen Biens produced before the Audubon bankruptcy remain in private hands.

Audubon also published a book on American mammals. Titled The Viviparous Quadrupeds of America and produced between 1845 and 1848, it features 150 hand-colored lithographs on imperial folio size (22 by 28 inch) paper of beasts such as the Rocky Mountain goat, the common flying squirrel, and the wolverine. It was the yield of Audubon’s last great artistic journey, an 1843 trip along the Missouri river in the company of his son, John Woodhouse, who ended up doing a fair amount of the work on the Quadrupeds after his father’s health began to fail. Its prints sell for between $800 and $35,000.

Other rarities emerge now and then. About two years ago, Newman handled an original watercolor of long-tailed ducks that Audubon had painted for The Birds of America and later rejected. It had remained with a Boston family from the 1840s onward, and was perhaps the only original preparatory watercolor for The Birds of America outside of the collection of the New-York Historical Society, which acquired them in 1863 from Audubon’s widow, Lucy, for $4,000. “It was a wonderful thing,” says Newman. “It sold very quickly for seven figures.” Steiner helped identify the watercolor. “I figured out where he painted it and why he went with a different painting of the same bird,” he says. “It was easy to authenticate. There was a signature on the back. With Audubon, in general, there are no grey areas. People who freak out over spending on anything other than real estate will calm down about it.”

Restoration and conservation, in contrast, is full of grey areas. Audubon conceived of his birds as parts of a multi-volume reference book, not as individuals printed for framed display. Even if he had hit upon the notion of presenting and selling the plates in that manner, his was an age before climate control and UV-resistant glass. For these reasons, a worn, torn, faded, or otherwise injured Audubon print isn’t automatically dead in the eyes of the market. “There is no line that can be absolutely drawn. It’s a question of representation and misrepresentation and how well things are done,” says Oppenheimer, who offers conservation and restoration services through his gallery. “You have to know what you’re doing and know what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”

Rescuing and rejuvenating Audubons can be a crapshoot. Newman recalls buying four prints that had been stored in a bank vault, including a much-coveted roseate spoonbill whose delicate pinks are vulnerable to fading over time. It had been mounted on board at some point in its past. “I gave it to my most competent restorer. She got it off without losing color,” he says. “We gambled and won, but it was still a gamble.”

Purists might grumble about repaired and recolored prints, but not Steiner, who asserts that “damn near anything” is acceptable when it comes to rescuing ailing Audubons. “If he saw the condition of some of the prints today, he’d be horrified and want somebody to fix them and bring them back,” he says. “The alternative is to throw it in the trash or display it in a compromised form, which would piss off Audubon. I like the guy. I want to do what he’d probably want to do.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2016

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