Audubon's Birds, Flightless, And Soaring

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 26, 2005

There are 1,065 birds in John James Audubon's "The Birds of America," that 19th-century encyclopedic tour de force. Their images appear on 435 separate sheets. It took a team of 50 to etch and print and paint by hand those sharply detailed pages, most of which were early on trimmed and pierced with needles and sewn into big books.

Only two whole sets survive whose loose, undamaged sheets were never trimmed for binding, and still look the way they did when they first came from the print shop. One of these "double-elephant" folios (the printer's term suggests the pachydermic size of its 40-inch-high pages) has been, since 1945, in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art.

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the one shown on the dollar bill, is more than a mere painting. The mighty Lincoln statue, too, is more than a mere sculpture. The same fate has befallen Audubon's great bird book. It's more than just a work of art. It's become a national monument. It's part of who we are.

Usually its feathered stars stay, unframed, in drawers, though every now and then the gallery does display them. "Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections From 'The Birds of America,' " now in the West Building, is a show of 50. Its prints, says Carlotta Owens, the curator who chose them, "include most of the images that people ask to see when they're not out on the walls."

The passenger pigeon (now extinct), and the ivory-billed woodpecker (which was thought extinct, but apparently isn't) are among the birds on view. The fish-eating bald eagle, emblem of the nation, has also been selected, as has the Baltimore oriole, the California condor, the raven and the mockingbird and, of course, the wild turkey (in an image touched with gold).

Not everyone will love these birds. They look a little stiff, perhaps. (Most have just been shot.) They also look generic instead of individual. And their beadiness of eye is frequently reptilian. But none of this much matters. What somehow matters more is the undeniable patriotic aura that shimmers round this art.

Birds, of course, are emblems -- the eagle on the flagpole, the dove of peace, the hawk. These, too, have become symbols -- of America's New Eden, that place of natural wonders, where daring pioneers live in close proximity to God's amazing handiwork, and make amazing art.

Like "Dumbo" by Walt Disney, or the faces on Mount Rushmore carved by Gutzon Borglum, or Andy Warhol's can of soup, Audubon's big birds have become part of America's patrimony. Hanging them is easy. Striking in their impact, they're also tastefully descriptive. They're as much at ease with modern furniture as they are with antiques. These nationalist embellishments decorate hotel rooms, and the offices of lawyers, and steak houses, and classrooms. They've been endlessly reproduced.

All patriotic viewers who haven't seen them should.

In the hokum of their marketing, in their muscular graphic oomph, in their hugeness of ambition and their hunger for top dollar, Audubon's big etchings are as American as can be.

And as British. And as French.

Though the artist is remembered as notably American, he wasn't wholly ours. J.J. Audubon was born Jean Rabine in Haiti in 1785. Until he was 18 the painter lived in France, and it was surely in that rich, cultivated country -- not while tramping across our trackless woods, or wading through our swamps -- that he first absorbed the stylish scrolls and luxurious arabesques and ripe rococo curls that activate his art.

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