John James Audubon’s
The Birds of America
John James Audubon, Carolina Parrot, from The Birds of America, 1827-1838, Havell XXVI, hand-colored aquatint/engraving on Whatman paper, 40 x 26 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Transfer from the North Carolina State Library More images Cardinal Golden Oriole Lark Swan Eagle Flamingo
For the first time, a treasure of art publishing that has belonged to the State of North Carolina for more than a century and a half will be exhibited in its entirety at the North Carolina Museum of Art. In recent decades the Museum’s copy of John James Audubon’s incomparable collection The Birds of America, a four-volume set, has been unavailable for viewing, except for a small number of plates separated from the volumes. Now restored, all four volumes will move to a special gallery devoted to Audubon’s art.
The Birds of America consists of 435 hand-colored prints produced by a combination of engraving and aquatint. Each volume is large, about 40 inches high. The ensemble represents a heroic life’s work that required Audubon to search for perfect specimens and undocumented species of birds in the roaring rivers and rough backwoods of a young American nation. Considering himself a naturalist as well as an artist, Audubon set out to depict nearly all of the birds life-size, a considerable challenge when he faced describing species as large as an American flamingo or a great blue heron. Until Audubon, bird illustrators painted their subjects looking stuffed, lifeless, and out of context. Audubon’s birds are vividly portrayed in their natural habitats, surrounded by the flowers or foliage typical of their environment.
Today only about 200 complete sets of The Birds of America exist. North Carolina Governor William Alexander Graham had a set purchased for the state in 1846. Many years of stains and minor damage have recently been treated, and the worn bindings have been replaced with new ones, including handmade, marbled endpapers.
In the new Audubon Gallery, the NCMA presents Audubon’s work in the context of his international accomplishments. New cases have been designed for the enormous volumes, with hydraulic lifts that allow staff members access to turn the pages regularly. During the five-year course of the exhibition, a majority of the plates will be on view.
Organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. Support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation. This exhibition is also made possible, in part, by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Inc.