The Berkshire Museum’s show, “Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds,” will be on display until June 17.
On display are over 30 prints from John James Audubon’s great opus, “The Birds of America,” which was published in a series of installments form 1827-1838 to the wealthy clientele subscribers who would bind the pages as they came in. A subscription would cost you $870 in 1827, or roughly $15,000 to $20,000 in today’s money, and was paid on a pay-as-you go basis.
In a day when it was expensive to mass produce colored drawings, Audubon’s pictures were made through an engraving process whereby a copper plate engraving was made from one of Audubon’s paintings. A print was made, and then a team of craftsman would hand-color the engraving.
One such plate of the brant goose is on display at the Berkshire Museum. In addition, a black and white broad-winged hawk is shown, followed by a hand-painted color version that a subscriber would receive after the black and white version was colored by an artist. Audubon would often write on his paintings instructions for the team of painters.
The cost of “The Birds of America,” as Audubon put it, was, “not calculating any of my expense or that of my family for upwards of 14 years,” $115,640, or $2,141,000 in today’s dollars. Recently a complete work sold at auction for $11.5 million.
Audubon could not find an American publisher and had to resort to England for help. Americans already had invested in publication and championed the father of American ornithology, Alexander Wilson, though Wilson — 19 years Audubon’s senior — had passed by the time Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was published.
A copy of Wilson’s “American Ornithology” is also on display at the museum. Wilson and Audubon had met in 1810 by chance at Audubon’s store in Louisville, Ky. — Wilson almost talked Audubon into paying $120 for a subscription when 36 cents bought a hot meal and one could get a day’s lodging for less than a dollar.
As Audubon was signing, his French business partner talked him out of it, citing the superiority of Audubon’s own work and their precarious financial affairs. While the two spent several days together meeting Audubon’s family and hunting together, many sources report a rivalry that developed with incriminations and recriminations of plagiarism, perhaps instigated more by Wilson’s devotees than Wilson himself.
Audubon was well ahead of his predecessors, who are also on display at the museum. They include artists such as British naturalist Mark Catesby, John Abbot (known more for his entomology than his ornithology), and Prideaux John Selby. Like Selby, who rendered British birds, Audubon’s illustrations are all life-size, but Audubon’s painting had far greater detail. Massive American birds, such as the golden eagle, the white heron, the whooping crane and even the great American swan, are all cramped into the large double-elephant folio paper that is 39 inches by 26 inches.
Also on display are Audubon’s illustrations of the now extinct Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, accompanied by actual taxidermy specimens of these birds that are part of the museum’s extensive collection of bird specimens which forms part of the exhibit.
What set Audubon apart from his predecessors was not only his scientific detail, but the method by which he drew his illustrations. His predecessors invariably drew from stilted taxidermy specimens. But Audubon — and this may come as a shock to those who know him as the father figure for animal conservation — was an avid huntsman.
“Not one to waffle, Audubon spoke freely about eating the birds he killed,” notes one placard of the display. From these freshly shot specimens, Audubon would wire the bird on to gridded board in life-like poses, and he would meticulously reconstruct the bird to its exact dimensions. The result was a bird that from a scientific perspective was much more accurate, active and life-like. From an aesthetic perspective, the birds were more endearing to the eye.
And the work was dramatic. Critics, perhaps jealous, said they were too dramatic and not scientific enough. On display is a golden eagle carrying off a white hair with a talon in a bleeding eye; red-tailed hawks fighting over a rabbit so as to perfectly show the back and underside of the bird; and a white heron striking at a lizard, with a twisted neck so as to fit its life-size body onto the paper.
And while no doubt this came at considerable monetary cost in its publication, Audubon showed infinitely more of the surrounding habitat than his predecessors, such as the swan in translucent waters — to show the functional underbelly and paddle action — with water-lilies with three beautiful flowers.
To all this, one can contrast the display of the earlier works with far less detail in the birds, stilted life-less posses that fail to inspire and habitat consisting only of a small fragment of stem from which the bird is perched.