Monday, November 07, 2005

Birds at the National Gallery

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery of Art, which currently has an exhibit of the original prints from John James Audubon's Birds of America. (The bald eagle at right appears in the exhibit.)

Audubon, Haitian-born and educated in France, worked at a time when much of North American birdlife - in fact of North American natural resources generally - had yet to be studied and classified. Along with several other naturalists, he helped to discover and classify many birds, some of which bear his name, such as the "Audubon's" sub-species of the yellow-rumped warbler. (Some of his discoveries are head-scratchers, such as the carbonated warbler.) Audubon's approach was to blend his scientific interests with his artistic talent, to produce naturalistic depictions of the birds he found.

I have always enjoyed reproductions of Audubon's prints, but after viewing the exhibit I have to say that most reproductions do not do justice to his work. The scale of the prints is impressive. His plates were printed on double-elephant folios, which in terms of printed material are huge. If you have not seen these in person, imagine the largest book you have, and then imagine something larger. I have trouble seeing a book this size being held in anything other than a library's special collection; it certainly would not be armchair or bedside reading.

Audubon used double-elephant folios so that he could depict birds as close to life-size as possible. In some cases this led to strange results, particularly in the largest birds such as the whooping crane, which he could not entirely fit onto the page. The great blue heron is also somewhat awkward. But Audubon's talent really shines with the smaller birds, for which he was able to depict both their plumage and their behavior in detail. As a result his birds are not just static, but actors within their environment.

Take, for example, his plate of blue jays, shown robbing eggs from the nest of another bird. His osprey - shown in the exhibition both as a print and as an oil painting - has just caught a fish. He did not shy away from more gruesome scenes, such as these peregrine falcons with freshly killed ducks. Meanwhile his magnolia warblers give the impression of foraging actively, as warblers do, while his chickadees hang upside-down from branches.

Of course, the active depictions of birds are not ideal when it comes to identification. In many cases field marks are obscured or not clearly marked. But in his day, identifications were made with a shotgun rather than with binoculars, so field marks from a distance were less of a concern. (In fact, each Audubon print represents at least one bird he shot, and usually more.) All of the prints are marked with the English and Latin names. For the modern birder, these can sometimes be hard to decipher since in many cases the names have changed (the northern bobwhite was called by Audubon "Virginian partridge"). Fortunately the exhibit tags give the modern names as well.

One intriguing print included in the exhibit is Audubon's common goldeneye. His scene shows a male and female of the species, one ascending in flight and the other descending. The museum points out its similarity to a later painting in its permanent collection, Winslow Homer's Right and Left. Homer's painting exhibits two goldeneye ducks, but with the postures reversed; a crucial detail added is a gun fired from a distant boat. The added detail in Homer's version, which may have been meant as a homage, make the interpretation of the scene more clear.

The exhibit runs through March 26, 2006. The museum has posted a section of related online resources. I am not sure if this exhibit will appear in other cities. It is well worth seeing for anyone in the area.

Note: The National Audubon Society has a section of its website devoted to its namesake and the Birds of America.