My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

The John James Audubon Exhibit at the GRAM

I made it, one day before the exhibit closes. The Grand Rapids Art Museum has had an exhibition of thirty of the original hand colored etchings done by John James Audubon and London, England engraver, Robert Havell.

For those of you who don’t know, John James Audubon spent years travelling the United States drawing and painting birds in their natural habitat. His goal was to draw every species of bird that lived here. Between 1827 and 1838 Audubon and his engraver Robert Havell produced 435 hand-colored and engraved plates of scope and standard never before seen in ornithological recording.

John James Audubon

Audubon was not the first to undertake the mission of painting every species of bird in the United States, he followed in the footsteps of Alexander Wilson. The difference between their works was that Wilson painted birds on a stark, bare background, whereas Audubon painted birds surrounded by their natural settings.

John James Audubon Californian Partridge

Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot in his shotgun. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. When working on a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. His paintings of birds are set true-to-life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observations.

He worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercoloring, and sometimes used gouache. All species were drawn life-size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds’ nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him. Going beyond faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon employed carefully constructed composition, drama, and slightly exaggerated poses to achieve artistic as well as scientific effects.

The scope of “Birds of America” is amazing in and of itself. Audubon painted every species life-sized, even the larger species such as Canadian Geese, Eagles, and Turkeys. Working from Audubon’s paintings and drawings, copper plates were etched to print the outlines, then each page was colored by hand. The shear size of the book is something to see, the pages are 39 X 26 inches and there are 435 plates depicting 497 species of birds. The book is as large as my kitchen table, but the copy they had at the exhibit was in a case so you couldn’t touch it to turn the pages. Another part of the exhibit is a slide show of all 435 original water colors that Audubon painted.

This is a travelling exhibition, on loan from the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. If you get the chance to see it, I would recommend it, it isn’t often that you get a chance to see something like this.

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