THE NATIONAL Gallery is surveying 19th-century America with four shows
of works on paper, opening Sunday. There's something for everyone: naive drawings, skillful watercolors, designs fondly claimed as Americana, and one for the birds.
"John James Audubon: The Birds of America" will probably draw the most initial attention, with its central location in the ground-floor galleries and its sheer familiarity. The 52 works come from Audubon's "double elephant folio" (it was a big one) of hand-colored engravings, done between 1827 and 1838. The gallery owns one of only two existing unbound folios of 435 prints. The other is in the Darwin Museum in Moscow.
In illustrating birds, Audubon combined the accuracy of scientific drawing with the grace of Japanese scroll-making. He broke with tradition when depicting birds in a habitat, instead of against a plain white background. He had a little help in this, enlisting a landscape artist, a watercolorist, his sons and even his engraver in order to add a mountain range, a plantation or a pawpaw tree.
Observing his subjects in the wild and then killing them to draw them, Audubon saw the likes of birds we'll never see -- passenger pigeons and Carolina parrots -- and these, too, are in the exhibit.
The conservation of another sort of natural wonder was an effect of "Thomas Moran's Watercolors of Yellowstone," 19 of which are on exhibit here. Accompanying a Department of Interior expedition to Yellowstone in 1871, Moran detailed its beauties on paper -- the rocks and canyons, hot springs and geysers. The watercolors promoted his career, but also helped Congress decide to name Yellowstone our first national park.
A third show also has to do with government involvement -- 85 examples from the "Index of AmericanDesign." Established in 1935 as a federal work project, the index faithfully catalogued, in pictures, American decorative arts from colonial days through the 19th century. In all, there are 17,000 watercolors in the index -- artists' renderings of weathervanes, figureheads, shop signs, coffee pots, quilts and coverlets. Experts at trompe l'oeil, the painters show convincing textures in such homely objects as a reed basket and a saddle blanket, a cornhusk doll and a Conestoga tar bucket.
These samples only whet the appetite. Part of the National Gallery, the full collection is open by appointment only to scholars and collectors. If, for example, the "Black Horse Tavern Sign" looks incredibly familiar, it may be so because artists and publishers cull the index for illustrations.
The fourth show, and the most absorbing and charming, is "American Naive Watercolors and Drawings." Rarely exhibited because of their fragility, the 50 works show a range of abilities in unknown, untrained artists.ome look like no more than children's work. In fact they are just that, especially the eerie "mourning pictures" that young girls drew of survivors standing around a headstone in a cemetery.
Others were divinely inspired -- Shaker "sacred sheets" that look like Islamic writing with their detailed calligraphy. There are also landscapes with the inevitable primitive perspective; portraits that sometimes captured a lifelike expression, as in "Lady in Pink Holding an Apple," by an unknown artist; and family portraits, such as "The Poole Family," with 17 pairs of identical eyes on 17 different faces.
Some artists lifted their ideas from 18th- century prints, as did Mary Ann Willson in her series "The Prodigal Son"; she made her colors from bricks and berries.
The show's still lifes were derived from stencils called theorems -- a sort of early paint-by-number pastime. Booklets instructed the "artist" to add tendrils on grapevines. The objt was to reproduce a model still life of fruit -- but the artists couldn't resist individual touches in color and treatment.
Original frames add to the primitivism of these paintings of unaffected thoughts and homespun desires. Of the four exhibits, these naive watercolors and drawings project the most feeling for the life of the people of the 19th century. JOHN JAMES AUDUBON: THE BIRDS OF AMERICA THOMAS MORAN'S WATERCOLORS OF YELLOWSTONE INDEX OF AMERICAN DESIGN AMERICAN NAIVE WATERCOLORS AND DRAWINGS -- All in the National Gallery of Art, through January 27, 1985.