An Eye for Birds

By Lawrence Biemiller

Pittsburgh -- A red-shouldered hawk diving with talons outstretched sends a bevy of terrified quail fleeing in every direction -- running, tripping, diving, stumbling, flapping furiously to become airborne, to escape. Even though it's just a print you're looking at, you can almost hear the squawking, the fierce rip of the hawk's wings against the air.

The print is one of the most brilliant in Birds of America, the pioneering work that John James Audubon completed in 1838. It's a work many people are familiar with, through art-history books, postcards, and other reproductions. But the lesson of an exhibit of the book's prints at the University of Pittsburgh's art gallery is that no reproduction prepares you for seeing the originals.

For one thing, the prints are huge -- the largest are almost two feet by three feet, so that Audubon could show even eagles and pelicans life-size, though without their wings fully spread. For another, the detail is magnificent. The reptilian scales of the flamingo's pink legs are exactly delineated, each zigzag of the American woodcock's rust-and-black camouflage is accounted for, and every shade of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet's exotic green-and-yellow plumage is lovingly re-created. The curve of the black vulture's wing is as beautifully realized as the wing of any Renaissance painter's angel, even though the vulture is shown preparing to peck out the eye of a dead deer.

The 62 prints on display here are from the university's copy of the four-volume work, which was recently taken apart for conservation. So many of the giant pages had torn over the years from the stress of being turned that librarians decided to leave the 435 prints unbound, so they can be stored individually and handled and displayed easily. Josienne N. Piller, the gallery's director, suggested mounting the exhibition soon after she heard about the disbinding.

Born in Haiti in 1785, Audubon was the illegitimate son of a French naval officer and a Creole maid. His father raised him in France, but in 1803 sent him to manage Mill Grove, an estate his father owned outside of Philadelphia. "He turned out to be a terrible businessman," Ms. Piller says. "That plagued him his whole life."

In Pennsylvania he began hunting and painting birds, an interest he continued to pursue after moving to Kentucky and marrying an Englishwoman, Lucy Blakewell. She worked as a teacher and governess, and fortunately she was better at making money than her husband. He cast about for a career for years before deciding in about 1820 that he wanted to paint all the birds of North America, life-size and in lifelike portrayals, and then have the paintings reproduced.

The audacity of his scheme cannot be overstated, Ms. Piller says. Audubon was unknown as an artist -- "He claimed he had lessons from Jacques-Louis David in France, but that's just pure bunk," she says -- and he was dismissed by scientists. But on the strength of his initial paintings he began promising to send subscribers five prints at a time: one large plate, one medium-size, and three small. It helped that he was charming and that he was something of a character: As he traveled through Europe hawking subscriptions, he presented himself as an American rustic, wearing snakeskin boots and bear fat in his hair -- despite his French upbringing and occasional claims to be the lost dauphin.

Others had painted birds before, but their pictures were small and tame by comparison. "Audubon added this tremendous amount of drama," Ms. Piller says. The female wild turkey is shown with nine chicks skipping and tumbling underfoot, and two great cormorants are portrayed on a rocky ledge, feeding a clamorous pair of open-mouthed young. A Northern shrike is eating a horned lark impaled on a hawthorne, and a whooping crane is bending to snap up a scurrying baby alligator. (Audubon, of course, used the names common in his day -- "hooping crane," for instance.)

Audubon traveled to Europe to find an engraver, finally settling on a Londoner named Robert Havell. Havell and his employees were the unsung heroes of Birds of America. He and his engravers meticulously transferred the intricate outlines of Audubon's original watercolors to copper plates for printing, after which his colorists -- most of them women -- shaded each individual feather, tongue, and talon by hand. The colorists worked so carefully that the prints, seen up close, are almost hyperrealistic: The great white heron's curving neck meets the rich blue of the sky more sharply than seems possible, at least on a planet with an atmosphere as dense as Earth's.

Roughly 175 subscribers paid about $1,000 each for complete sets -- 435 prints delivered between 1827 and 1838, along with title pages for four separate volumes. Subscribers were responsible for binding their own prints. The edition is referred to as the double-elephant folio, which means it's twice as big as the largest standard book size, the elephant folio.

Although Audubon had finished a number of paintings before the printing began, he continued to travel, hunt, and paint once the process was under way even as he became increasingly desperate to stay ahead of the engravers. He worked without benefit of field guides, binoculars, or modern preservatives, often painting birds he had shot himself as the specimens rotted on the apparatus he used to hold them in lifelike poses. A golden eagle he painted at Indian Key, Fla., in 1832 took 14 days. Other paintings he did from specimens or skins preserved in rum and sent to him by acquaintances. Many Western birds are missing because they had yet to be identified.

In addition to painting, supervising the printing and coloring, and selling subscriptions, Audubon was at work on a companion text, the five-volume Ornithological Biography, which he wrote with a Scottish naturalist named William MacGillivray. It is full of lively, graceful prose, which Ms. Piller has excerpted for exhibition labels. The flight of the swallow-tailed kite, Audubon writes, is "singularly beautiful and protracted," and is noted especially for "the deep curves which they describe, their sudden doublings and crossings, and the extreme ease with which they seem to cleave the air."

Anthony Bledsoe, a lecturer in biology at the university whose research centers on avian evolution, says that Audubon's era "was not yet in any sense modern in terms of the biological sciences." Darwin's On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859, Mr. Bledsoe notes. "Audubon wasn't a museum type -- he was an outdoorsman. But he was clearly a critical observer, and in that sense he was a good biologist."

Still, he got some things wrong, Mr. Bledsoe says. A "Columbia Jay," painted from a specimen Audubon was told had been collected near the Columbia River, is actually a tropical species, while the "Vigor's Warbler" is in truth an immature pine warbler that he came upon in a place where pine warblers were not normally found. And the spectacular print that shows the red-shouldered hawk attacking the quail misrepresents both the hawk's hunting habits and the terrain quail frequent, Mr. Bledsoe says. The hawk would more likely pursue a single prey, and the quail would not be found in the open.

"But look at the action going on here!" he says. "He clearly had an ability to portray birds as animated and interesting." And Audubon got a lot right. Flamingoes, Mr. Bledsoe says, put their heads upside down and sieve tiny shrimp and other foods from the water -- just as one of the birds in the background of the iconic flamingo print is doing.

Charles Aston Jr., head of special collections at the university's library, has taken a deep interest in its copy of Birds of America. He says the release of a smaller, $100 edition of the book in the 1840s popularized Audubon's work and finally made him a decent profit. The university's copy of the double-elephant folio was purchased in the 1850s for about $400 by a Pittsburgh lawyer who bequeathed his library to the university in 1918.

Mr. Aston says a lot of book collectors were "horrified" that the university had the Audubon volumes disbound. But the books, at about 60 pounds each, were difficult to use. "You had to have two people there to turn the pages, and every time you turned a page you were doing some damage."

"I only know of us and the Library of Congress that have done this," says Mr. Aston. Disbinding, he says, was the best way to ensure that the library could safely display Audubon's work. The current exhibition, which has been extended through January, has already given several thousand people the chance to marvel at the prints, he says, adding: "The whole time they've been in Pittsburgh, nothing like this many people have seen them."

Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published December 12, 2003.